Friday 5: Martinsville begins stretch that could preview Cup playoffs

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Saturday night’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway begins a five-week stretch at tracks that will host playoff races this season.

These events should show who the early title favorites are.

After Martinsville, the series races at Richmond (April 18), Talladega (April 25), Kansas (May 2) and Darlington (May 9).

The only other playoff track the series has yet to visit in the regular season is Texas Motor Speedway. It will host the June 13 All-Star Race.

Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have started strong. The question is can they continue their momentum?

Larson won at Las Vegas, which hosts a playoff race, and was in contention to win on the Daytona road course and at Atlanta before late issues.

Hamlin and Keselowski are the lone drivers with top-five finishes this season at Las Vegas and Phoenix, the only two playoff tracks the series has run this year (Bristol is not comparable since it was held on dirt and its playoff race won’t be).

In this season of parity, Larson, Hamlin and Keselowski aren’t the only competitors who have done well. Eight drivers have placed in the top 10 at both Las Vegas and Phoenix this year. Joining Larson, Hamlin and Keselowski on that list are: Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, William Byron and Joey Logano.

Bell’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, says this five-race stretch is key to his team for many reasons.

“I think for us, what’s important is to probably try some things to see how good we can be, and make sure that we are running all the laps and finishing strong in the races,” Stevens said.

“It seems like we fell off that wagon a little bit here recently, and it’s reflecting in our starting position, which makes it hard for pit selection and makes it hard for stage points early in the race. To make a deep run in the playoffs, you’re going to need some bonus points on occasion. I think that trying to balance learning for the playoffs and scoring some points here to right the ship a little bit is where we’re kind of at right now.”

With seven different winners to open the season, no one has built a large gap in playoff points, which can be critical in advancing.

James Small, crew chief for Truex, noted that lack of playoff points kept the team from reaching the title race last year.

“That has to be a priority,” Small said of playoff points, “because that’s where we kind of got let down and we were forced to win at Martinsville and Texas (to advance to the championship race) last year and just missed out on both.”

2. How about this for the schedule?

Created out of necessity, NASCAR’s schedule has undergone a radical shift since the COVID pandemic last year. Such forward thinking continues.

The Bristol dirt race, new Cup stops at Road America, Circuit of the Americas and Nashville Superspeedway, along with additional road course events have transformed a series that moved its title event from Miami to Phoenix last year.

With talk that an iRacing Chicago street course event might someday herald an actual race there, Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith’s plans for Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, and his recent comment on the Dale Jr. Download that “we haven’t forgotten” about North Wilkesboro, it makes one wonder what the series schedule could be like in the next few years.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president for strategic development, recently told NASCAR.com that “as we look at future schedules, certainly have everything on the table.”

That philosophy and Smith’s comments about North Wilkesboro have some dreaming of NASCAR returning to the rundown track.

Terry Labonte (No. 5) and Elton Sawyer (No. 27) lead the field at the start of the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro Speedway on April 14, 1996. Mark Martin (No. 6) Bobby Hamilton (No. 43) follow. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Josh Berry, who runs select Xfinity races for JR Motorsports and has extensive experience running Late Models, has another suggestion for the sport to consider.

“I think that would be a great thing to do (update North Wilkesboro), but at the same time, there’s a lot of great short tracks around that are still functioning race tracks that desperately need something like that to survive,” Berry said.

“I could name a ton of them that are beautiful facilities, or some facilities with a little bit of upkeep (that) would be ready to host ARCA, Trucks, Xfinity races. I don’t know necessarily why you have to swing for the fences and just do a total rebuild of a track when there are all these other short tracks around the country that are ready to have a race.”

Ryan Preece, who competed in Thursday’s NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race at Martinsville Speedway, suggested South Boston (Virginia) Speedway as one such track.

“It would be cool to see if they can hold a Cup race because there are two pit roads there,” Preece said.

Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville likely will give NASCAR another historic short track — with the benefit of being in a large city.

While there would be many challenges, the idea of a race — whether a points race or the All-Star Race — at a local short track could be interesting. NASCAR could move that race to different local short tracks so that event has a fresh vibe each year.

More than likely, the obstacles will be too great for something like that to happen, but if it could someday, it’s an idea to consider.

3. Playoff chaos

Martinsville Speedway could see the eighth different driver to win a Cup race to open the season.

The record for different winners to start a season in the modern era (since 1972) is 10. That happened in 2000.

But why stop at just 10? For utter playoff chaos, why not different winners in the first 16 races of the season? The odds are against it, of course, but here’s one look at how it could happen.

April 10, Martinsville: Brad Keselowski — He has nine top fives, including two wins, in his last 10 Martinsville starts. Team Penske placed its three drivers second, third and fourth in both of last year’s Martinsville races. Keselowski makes the streak eight different winners to open the season, something that hasn’t happened since 2003. The biggest challenge from a driver who has already won this year is Martin Truex Jr. He won the June 2020 race at Martinsville and has won four of the last 10 races on short tracks.

April 18, Richmond: Denny Hamlin — He finished third at Phoenix this year with the same tire compound that will be used at Richmond. Hamlin has three wins at this track, his last coming in 2016. Biggest threat from a driver who has won this year would be Truex, who won both Richmond races in 2019. Should Keselowski win at Martinsville, he would be among the favorites for this race. Keselowski won at Richmond last year (Truex was second).

April 25, Talladega: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He finished next-to-last in the most recent Talladega race after an accident and was second in the first Talladega race last year. The pendulum swings back to a finish at the front. A top contender from this year’s group of winners would be Joey Logano, who was about a mile away from winning the Daytona 500 before contact with Keselowski crashed both.

May 2, Kansas: Kevin Harvick Maybe this is the day he scores the first win of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing. Among the likely favorites who already have a win this year will be Kyle Larson. He won at Las Vegas. Kansas and Las Vegas both use the same right-side tire compound.

May 9, Darlington: Chase Elliott Karma gets him this win. Elliott was wrecked by Kyle Busch at this track while running second in the May 20, 2020 race. Martin Truex Jr. raced Elliott for the lead late in last year’s Southern 500 when contact sent both cars into the wall. Truex, Larson and Logano would be among drivers who have won already who could add to their win total here.

May 16, Dover: Kyle Busch Martin Truex Jr. won at this track in May 2019. Denny Hamlin won one of the Dover races in 2020. Kyle Busch makes it a third year in a row that a Joe Gibbs Racing driver wins at this track. This also is a place that Larson could score another win. He won in October 2019 when driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.

May 23, Circuit of the Americas: Kurt Busch The first seven races of the season have not gone as well as hoped for Kurt Busch and his team. Maybe this track could change things, if they haven’t changed by this point in the season. Truex will be among the favorites, along with Elliott.

May 30, Coca-Cola 600: Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports nearly won this race last year with Chase Elliott and will do so this year for its first 600 victory since Jimmie Johnson won the race in 2014.

June 6: Sonoma: Erik Jones No one saw Christopher Bell winning the Daytona road course earlier this year. Bell’s two Cup road course results in 2020 were 24th (at the Charlotte Roval) and 21st at Daytona. With that in mind, an upset pick here — if there are going to be 16 different winners in a row, there are going to be some upsets, so the pick is Jones and Richard Petty Motorsports. Jones finished 14th on the Daytona road course this year. He was third at the Roval last year and 11th on the Daytona road course.

4. Not as much parity as it seems?

Brad Keselowski was asked this week about his take on the parity in Cup this season with the seven different winners to open the season.

He had an interesting response. He also noted that maybe the parity isn’t as great as it seems.

“I think the body change or template change, rules change, whatever you want to call it, to start 2020 on the quarter panels of the car was pretty significant,” he said. “That leveled the field out pretty dramatically. I think it hurt some teams pretty significantly that has probably been well-documented. I think that’s probably a contributing factor. 

“Another factor is the schedule disparity — a huge change in the schedule. We’ve been at every type of track between dirt, short track, intermediate, road course, superspeedway in the first seven races. It’s hard to see how that couldn’t play a factor into it, and then there’s just some all-out luck factors as well. 

“I think Kyle Larson has probably had the fastest car in over half of those races and he’s had a few mistakes. He’s had a little bit of bad luck to where it hasn’t played out for him to win. So a number of those pieces come together at the end of the day and end in the result that, at least externally, looks like a lot of parity.

“But the reality is I think if you looked at parity in the sense of who has had the fastest car the majority of the races, in my eyes at least, there hasn’t been a huge difference in parity. That might be a better way to judge it than race winners.”

5. NASCAR’s new “Mr. Excitement”

Jimmy Spencer had the nickname of “Mr. Excitement.” He last raced in NASCAR in 2006, so maybe it’s a good time to revive his nickname and give it to Noah Gragson.

The JR Motorsports driver is unapologetic about his aggressive driving. It has gotten him in trouble with fellow competitors. Daniel Hemric joined the list last month at Atlanta when he scuffled with Gragson in response for an incident earlier in the race.

Gragson said this week that he planned to talk to Hemric ahead of tonight’s Xfinity race at Martinsville Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1). Gragson starts eighth.

“There’s no hard feelings toward Daniel or anybody else in the Xfinity garage, but at the same time I need to keep a job, and I need to race as hard as I can,” Gragson said this week.

He also explained why he races the way he does.

“In my opinion, aggressiveness gets you up front and gets you there,”  Gragson said. “It could be Bristol dirt. It could be Martinsville. It could be Daytona or anywhere in between, you have to be aggressive to get up front in these races.”

That means being aggressive on the first lap even if there has been no practice or qualifying before the race.

“It kind of shows the guys who are maybe a little more ballsy on the first lap,” Gragson said. “You can kind of pick those guys out and see. You don’t know what your car is going to handle like. You get out on the racetrack and you got to fire it off full speed into Turn 1 on the first lap. I think that shows where the men and the boys are.”

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