What matters at Martinsville: The prolonged struggle is real


What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and why is this a track that prolongs struggle? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends and that will shape the Blue Emu 500 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1):

A driver’s biggest adversary: Martinsville induces struggle

It’s easy to drum up storylines around Martinsville. It’s a half-mile short track that invites closed-quarters racing, sparks rivalries and hosts paybacks. But these narratives neglect the biggest, most important matchup of all: Drivers vs. Racetrack.

Martinsville’s unique, flat design doesn’t translate to many other venues, nor does it represent the kind of racetrack most drivers familiarized themselves with at the amateur or grassroots levels. Furthermore, it’s a facility that elicits struggle from drivers young, old, good and bad for extended periods of time. Consider:

  • Kevin Harvick hasn’t won at Martinsville in over 10 years and is winless since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
  • Kyle Busch experienced a nine-race Martinsville stretch from 2008-12 that included six finishes of 22nd or worse.
  • From 2006-17, a span of 23 races at Martinsville, Kurt Busch tallied 12 finishes of 22nd or worse. His lone top-10 finish was a win in 2014.
  • Out of Martin Truex Jr.‘s first 18 starts at Martinsville, 13 of them resulted in finishes of 19th or worse.
  • In 12 career Martinsville starts, Kyle Larson finished 16th or worse nine times.

These are champions and stars of the sport, with competitive teams, bested by a dinky track for what seems like exaggerated amounts of time. Larson, for one, recognized it’s nothing like what he saw in his open-wheel upbringing, one of big corners and high bankings.

“Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning,” Larson said. “There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track.

“In sprint cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner … Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot.”

Brad Keselowski has to this point been impervious to Martinsville’s mighty backhand, finishing 10th or better in 16 of his 22 career starts and inside the top five in nine of his 10 most recent tries. But he recognizes a trap of perceived preparation into which many top drivers fall.

“It’s a really hard track to practice at, even more so because we can’t practice,” Keselowski said. “Even when you could practice there, it was really hard to get anything out of it. The track is so much different in practice as it is in the race and that was something that I struggled with very early at Martinsville a lot. We would be really fast in practice — we’d kind of be patting ourselves on the backs — and then we’d go to race and it was just a ‘meh’ race where we’d run 10th to 15th.

“In that sense, it was frustrating but not awful.”

Practice isn’t the only place where one can make gains. A 500-lap race lends plenty of room for improvement, but if drivers haven’t experienced good cars at any track in years, including Martinsville, they might not recall the feeling of a preferred, successful balance.

“I’ll never forget my first year in Cup, really my first two or three years in Cup, running just awful, bad, at California Speedway,” Keselowski said. “I really struggled to give feedback because I’d never had a good car in those first three races.

“I wasn’t able to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I need the car to do.’ I just didn’t have the experience. And with respect to that, I couldn’t provide the feedback to the team. The car wasn’t good, which meant I wasn’t developing the right techniques.”

Technique is a key word. Martinsville’s most recent winners, Truex and Chase Elliott, have been praised by competitors for their brilliance in braking zones, translatable across road courses and the tight-cornered Martinsville. But they’ve also routinely had fast cars. To wit, Truex and Elliott ranked second and first in green-flag speed during their respective wins last year.

“You find a technique that works and you stick with it, but those techniques only work when you have a car that is good enough,” Keselowski said. “And you know what ultimately happens a lot at Martinsville is that you get a technique, you get a good car and you get in a rhythm and someone starts to dominate.

“And vice versa: If you never find that technique and you never have a car that works well, you get lost.”

Despite attainable track position, speed is a prerequisite for a result

Optically, last year’s races at Martinsville contained parity. In the spring race, three different drivers led 70 or more laps; in the fall race, four drivers led over 35 laps. Combined, four stages saw four different winners.

The results, though, were true to speed, based on statistical correlation. The coefficient between speed ranking and finishing position was +0.9 for both races — note that +1.0 represents a perfect correlation — suggesting straightforward tilts in line with races in Martinsville’s recent past. It’s a near-perfect relationship that typically produces blowout wins like the ones we saw from Keselowski (446 laps led) and Truex (464 laps led) in 2019.

One of the common denominators of last year’s races was a lack of qualifying, spreading out the fastest cars in the field, forcing them to seek track position through speed, pit road strategy or passing. Another was the reduced spoiler height, diminishing the ability of a lead car to block a trailing car, thus allowing for easier pass completion.

We saw Elliott secure 28.6 positions beyond his expected pass differential, while Ryan Blaney, who earned a pair of runner-up finishes, tallied 21.19 surplus spots. Neither, though, earned the biggest bounty of positions via passing:

Kurt Busch scored the most surplus positions across Martinsville’s two races, but lacked the speed necessary to turn those spots into race wins. Matt Kenseth, his stablemate last season at Chip Ganassi Racing, encountered a similar problem deeper in the field.

It seems Busch is an astute Martinsville mover, but without elite speed, his ceiling for a result is lower than most other efficient passers.

The outside line is perfectly fine on restarts

Martinsville may have been the origin of drivers braking near the exit of pit road in order to avoid a poor restart slot. Ironically, this has long been a track where the success rates for defending a position are relatively even.

From 2017-18, the outside groove was the statistically stronger of the two, and while the inside groove proved better over the last couple years, including last season with the reduced spoiler height, it’s clear cars restarting from the outside aren’t doomed:

The inside groove was selected by the leader on 19 of 21 clean start and restart attempts in 2020. Truex was the only leader who selected the outside as his launching point, successfully defending his restart on lap 409 of last fall’s playoff race.

All in, occupants of the outside spot on the first row defended position on 71.43% of attempts (compared to the inside groove’s 80% retention rate) and passed for the lead four times within two laps of the restart, competitive marks that run counter to the lane’s reputation.

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments


TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”


Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”


Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 


NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race


In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.



AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.



Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.


Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway


A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:


Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.


Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.



End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs


A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”