Tommy Joe Martins

Brandon Brown
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Family-owned Xfinity teams brace for long break

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Less than 24 hours after NASCAR announced it would not hold races until at least May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandon Brown was trying to look on the bright side.

The 26-year-old driver at Brandonbilt Motorsports, a family-owned Xfinity Series team with shop locations in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Mooresville, North Carolina, was discussing what the team would do until NASCAR’s scheduled return in two months.

“So North Carolina has our pull down rig,” Brown told NBC Sports on Tuesday morning. “So there’s plenty of time to go test. If they want to test a thousand different setups, then by all means, please do. We don’t really get a research and development team being a smaller organization. Now is the time to take advantage of what what we can.”

It was then that Brown was informed that due to “unprecedented events,” NASCAR had just announced a ban on all forms of testing not related to the Cup Series’ Next Gen car.

“Well, I guess we are not doing any research and development, so they’re going home,” Brown said, adding all that may be left to do is “put a car cover (on his race cars) I guess.”

The “unprecedented events” cited by NASCAR is COVID-19, which in less than a week has brought sports and the world in general to a halt. According to the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine coronavirus resource center, the virus has resulted in 5,853 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 97 confirmed deaths.

It’s also placed small teams in the Xfinity Series like Browns’ in a precarious position with likely no regular sources of income until its next scheduled race, May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“What do you think about something that’s never, ever happened to anybody in their lifetimes?” Tommy Joe Martins asked Tuesday morning from Las Vegas. “It’s just not something any of us could probably have been prepared for. So we’re just going to try to make the best of it.”

Martins co-owns and drives for Martins Motorsports, the Xfinity team that relaunched this year. Without prize money from races, which Martins said Monday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Late Shift” comprises 80-85% of the team’s budget, it has to furlough its five full-time employees after the first postponed race weekend.

Martins said the team will likely keep crew chief Danny Johnson on part-time and try to help crew members file for unemployment.

“I’m of the opinion this is probably going to get worse for a while,” Martins said. “There might be some sort of a pause in domestic travel or some other things that fall out from it. … Whether you believe that it’s that serious or not, the reaction to it will be serious. It has been very serious and it will affect your life. I think that’s something I’ve taken away from it.”

The impact of the pandemic is hitting Martins on two fronts. Tuesday was his last day of work as a driving instructor at the Ron Fellows Racing School in Las Vegas. Martins said over the last few years he had built a financial cushion for himself that could leave him in a good spot for the next four to five months.

While Monday brought news of NASCAR teams sending employees home as a safety precaution, Brown said his team will try to keep the shop open for two, possibly three weeks.

“We survive on the purse money and we survive on sponsorships, but our sponsors are also struggling,” Brown said. “Parts of their businesses are getting shut down or told they can’t operate. Take for instance, our Daytona sponsor, Larry’s Lemonade. They own a bar and restaurant, but nobody’s going there right now. Without a good income, I wish I had a true deadline of what it’s going to be, but they’re discussing that now. It’s up to the team’s leadership. … But if I had to make a guess, two to three weeks and then we’ll probably be sitting at home.”

When it comes to his personal financial well being, Brown said, “I’ll do OK.

“It’s going to hurt quite a bit, because all of my income comes from working with sponsors and it seems to me right now that companies aren’t really focused on their marketing programs. So a lot of those got put on hold.”

In a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR President Steve Phelps was asked what plans the sanctioning body had to financially help teams.

“Are we concerned about teams broadly and their financial health? Of course we are,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure that each of our teams gets through this, each of our stakeholders in the industry gets through this crisis as well as we all can.

“Lots of things on the table. No specifics at this point that we are prepared to discuss.”

Both Brown and Martins have other worries related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For myself, I’ve had to take precautions a little extra serious because my younger brother, who had to come home from school (at James Madison University), he suffers from Crohn’s Disease, which is an auto immune disorder,” Brown said. “So I have to take it really serious because if I bring anything home, I don’t know what complications that could bring to him.”

Martins is thinking about his parents, who are both are in their 60s and live in Mississippi.

“They’re locked down for the most part,” Martins said. “They’re kind of the target age for this being really bad. My mom has rheumatoid arthritis, my dad’s really lived with diabetes on a very minor scale for a while now. My dad’s still very active and diabetes hasn’t really affected his life the way it affects a lot of people. But still, that puts him at a major risk for this. Just told him to be very, very careful. … Obviously, I’d love to be home with them, but honestly I just traveled over the last few weeks and the question that I have right now as a citizen is: ‘Do I have this?’

“Really, you can’t get that answer yet. So I’m just trying to be as careful as I can right now and I really don’t want to drive home and hang out with them just yet until we kind of know all the facts about this.”

Xfinity practice report at Auto Club Speedway

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Harrison Burton was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session Friday at Auto Club Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver recorded 22 laps and posted a top speed of 174.474 mph in the 25-minute session.

The top five was completed by Noah Gragson (173.779 mph), Austin Cindric (173.775), Chase Briscoe (173.578) and Brandon Jones (173.578).

Burton also had the best 10-lap average at 170.422 mph.

Gragson recorded the most laps in the session with 25.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

First practice

Noah Gragson led the way for the Xfinity Series in the opening practice session that saw more than half the 50-minute period under caution at Auto Club Speedway

Gragson ran a top lap of 177.139 mph. He was followed by Austin Cindric (176.022), Daniel Hemric (175.400), Brandon Jones (175.366) and Harrison Burton (175.187).

Click here for full practice report

Alex Labbe brought out the caution when an oil line came loose and he put oil down on the track. The cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Tommy Joe Martins brought out the caution late in the session with smoke coming from the car and then a small fire in the right front of the car.

 

 

Myatt Snider wins pole for Xfinity Series opener at Daytona

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Myatt Snider claimed the pole for today’s Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

The son of NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider, the 25-year-old Richard Childress Racing driver earned the pole in his first career Xfinity start. He posted a top speed of 188.430 mph.

Snider is the 12th driver to win the pole in their Xfinity debut.

It is the third consecutive pole for RCR in the season-opening race at Daytona, following Tyler Reddick in 2019 and Daniel Hemric in 20018. It is RCR’s 10th Xfinity pole at Daytona, which leads all teams.

Snider, the 2018 Truck Series rookie of the year, is driving RCR’s No. 21 car part-time this year.

“The last couple of days have been interesting,” Snider told FS1. “I’ve about gone to school basically. This is completely different from the truck series and how the truck series races. But I’m just blessed with the opportunity to race at Richard Childress Racing. … But we’ve got an insanely fast race car, obviously. I’m so stoked to be with these guys. … I can’t put it into words. First career start, first career pole.”

More: Myatt Snider’s European racing adventure

Snider will be joined on the front row by defending race winner Michael Annett.

The top five is completed by Justin Haley, Jeb Burton and SS Greenlight Racing’s Joe Graf Jr.

The Kaulig Racing cars driven by Ross Chastain and AJ Allmendinger each suffered similar mechanical issues in the left front during their qualifying runs, according to team general manager Chris Rice. It resulted in them posting the two of the slowest speeds in qualifying. With a lack of owner points, Allmendinger and Chastain failed to make the race.

Chastain will still get to race with Ryan Sieg‘s team allowing him to drive Jeff Green‘s 38 car.

The other DNQ drivers were Tommy Joe Martins, Chad Finchum and Colin Garrett.

Prior to qualifying NASCAR announced a L2 level penalty against MBM Motorsports and its No. 66 team for an improper body modification on the nose.

Crew chief Sebastian LaForge has been suspended for six Xfinity races effective immediately and fined $50,000.

The team has also been docked 75 owner points.

The No. 66 car, driven by Timmy Hill, qualified 26th for today’s race.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Updated entry lists for Daytona 500 race weekend

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The official start of the 2020 NASCAR seasons is days away for all three national series at Daytona International Speedway.

Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series teams return to 2.5-mile speedway as the weekend builds to the 62nd Daytona 500.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each series.

Cup – Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

Forty-three cars are entered for this year’s Daytona 500, meaning three cars will fail to make the race.

Which three will be sent home will be decided Thursday night with the qualifying races (7 p.m. ET on FS1).

The drivers in danger of missing out are Daniel Suarez, Reed Sorenson and Chad Finchum (Duel No. 1) and JJ Yeley and Timmy Hill (Duel No. 2).

The top finishing “open” cars in each race advance to the 500.

Click here for the starting lineups for the qualifying races.

Xfinity – NASCAR Racing Experience 300 (2:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Forty cars are entered into the Xfinity Series opener.

With the series’ field having been reduced to 36 cars, four will not make the race.

NBC Sports’ AJ Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. Kaulig will be fielding three cars along with the full-time entries of Ross Chastain and Justin Haley.

Austin Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

There are two cars listed without drivers.

Click here for the entry list.

More: Tommy Joe Martins’s family-owned Xfinity teams returns for third time

Trucks – NextEra Energy Resources 250 (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Forty trucks are entered in Truck Series season opener.

With the Truck Series’ fields capped at 32, nine trucks will fail to make the race.

Cup Series rookie John Hunter Nemechek is entered in NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Cup Series rookie Brennan Poole is entered in On Point Motorsports’ No. 30 Toyota.

Xfinity Series driver Ross Chastain is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Chevrolet.

Xfinity Series rookie Riley Herbst is entered in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51 Toyota.

The No. 03 of Tim Viens has withdrawn.

Click here for the entry list.

A three-peat this family-owned NASCAR team doesn’t want to have

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Not long ago, Tommy Joe Martins did not sound like someone who wanted to operate his own race team again.

During a 2018 appearance on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, he recalled the struggles his team, Martins Motorsports, faced when it attempted to compete in the Xfinity Series in 2014 and the Truck Series three years later on shoestring budgets.

Each effort ended with the team shutting down.

Two years later, he is days away from attempting to make the Xfinity season opener at Daytona in his own car.

“I can tell you I certainly did not want to go do this again,” Martins says.

For the third time in seven years Tommy Joe Martins and his family-owned team are making an attempt at the NASCAR dream.

What makes him think this time will be any different?

Friday, Jan. 24: 21 Days before Daytona

Tommy Joe Martins answers his phone promptly at 9:30 a.m. ET.

For Martins, it’s even earlier. He answers from Las Vegas before the sun rises on what will be his 14th straight day of work.

Luckily this will be a half-day of work for Martins, who teaches Corvette owners how to drive their cars at the Ron Fellows Racing School.

“It keeps me driving something and I’m actually able to make money rather than just sitting around and working out,” Martins says. “I’m able to have a kind of normal existence over here.”

While earning money in Vegas, he is roughly 2,200 miles from where Martins Motorsports’ resurrection is taking place.

The Martins Motorsports shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Daniel McFadin)

The team is taking form in a shop in the Mooresville Motorsports Center, a complex of buildings that neighbors the Mooresville Dragway and where one can find the homes to multiple racing teams, including Young’s Motorsports’ Truck Series team and JR Motorsports’ late models program.

When asked about his team’s previous demises, even Martins notes the need for a clarification.

“This is probably a bad thing I have to refer to which time we shut the team down,” Martins says.

Of their first Xfinity effort in 2014, Martins recalls “a terrible plan and a rookie driver and rookie people” that waylaid his team.

“I can honestly say we had no idea what we were doing,” Martins says. “That was a group of people that thought they knew something that really didn’t. We had a hauler that was coming apart at the seams. We had these old Turner (Motorsports) cars that were really tough to get some parts for. Dodge at the time had completely stopped making body parts, so we couldn’t even get Dodge body parts.

“The only thing we could get was engines and we thought that was enough. We had some people that had kind of been on the fringes of NASCAR and they just didn’t have the experience in the Nationwide (Series) at the time and we were trying to do it with them because we were running the whole team out of Nashville.”

With the Truck Series effort – which was based out of the Mooresville shop – it came down to money. After the 2017 season the team “kind of got the chair pulled out from under” it when the people writing the checks “backed out all at once.”

Those episodes are part of a racing career that Martins has estimated cost his family “hundreds of thousands of lost dollars.”

After the second closing, Martins had safe harbor due to racing for BJ McLeod in 2017, a gig that would continue in the Xfinity Series into 2019 before he moved to Carl Long’s team.

Which brings us to the how and why of Martins Motorsports’ second rebirth.

FALLBACK OPTION

After a season split between racing for McLeod and Long in Xfinity, Martins had aimed to run full-time for Long in 2020.

But it became apparent to him, his father Craig and co-owner Rodney Riessen that there wouldn’t be room for him at Long’s team in 2020. Martins’ father says Long was “pretty committed” to Chad Finchum and Timmy Hill, who had competed in most of the Xfinity races for Long last year, while Martins only ran nine.

The Martins Motorsports side of the operation had purchased three old JGL Racing cars, one of which was a road course car. While it was fielded with one of Long’s engines, the car was theirs.

“So we essentially had told Carl, ‘Look, one of the reasons we’re doing this is if we can’t work out a deal for next year, we’re going to put together our own team,’” says Martins. “Because we felt we already had the basics of it. We had cars, we had some pit equipment. … We had put a lot of the structure in place as a fallback option.”

Added Martins: “It is with some reluctance that we are doing this.”

Some coaxing from Martins Motorsports’ new co-owner broke that reluctance.

A FRIENDLY PUSH

Rodney Riessen has been a friend and Tommy Joe’s biggest supporter for a decade, ever since he competed in late models near his home in Como, Mississippi.

Riessen and Martin’s father work together in construction in the concrete business, with Riessen serving as a sub-contractor for Craig.

A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Riessen is a long-time fan of racing, specifically dirt racing. But don’t ask him about what goes on underneath the hood.

“I know very little about cars,” Riessen says. “I don’t even work on my own car.”

When it came to being a sponsor of Martins, Riessen was OK with keeping his role simple. On a recent visit to Mooresville, Riessen ran a series of errands for the team, including picking up radios and uniforms.

Rodney Riessen with Tommy Joe Martins in 2009 when Martins climbed into a NASCAR Truck Series vehicle for the first time (Photo via Tommy Joe Martins’ Twitter).

But Riessen wants to help put Martins in the best position possible for his career, and there had been conversations for a few years about Riessen increasing his involvement.

“I believe Tommy Joe is a very good driver,” Riessen says. I think we’ve always done him a disservice by putting him in, at best, mediocre equipment. I’m like, Tommy’s getting up there in the age (33) where he doesn’t have many years left to race, let’s give him his best shot ever.

“My goal with this whole thing, this year and next year, Craig and I just build the company of Martins Motorsports a little bit and then towards the end of next year, transition from Tommy Joe being the driver into Tommy Joe being the driver (and owning) Martins Motorsports, we hand the company over to him and just let him make his dream come true and then all I have to do is show up to the track.”

Craig’s reaction to Rodney’s push to field their own team was understandable given their track record.

“I told him, ‘Man, you gotta be crazy,’” Craig recalls over the phone from his home in Mississippi, later adding, “I fell for it I guess.”

“He really loves it,” Craig says of Rodney. “He’s extremely passionate about it. Probably more so than me. I’ve told people for years, ‘I don’t love racing, I love my son.’ And (Rodney) loves racing. … Here we go again.”

SPONSOR WOES BE GONE

Auto racing requires money and while Craig Martins has his construction company, funding his son’s racing dreams over the years has not been easy, including taking out a full-value loan on his house in 2016 which is still being paid off.

He says his investment in the team has been “substantial.”

“Probably more than we oughta do,” Craig says. “Our family’s been in racing for quite a while now with lots of ups and downs. We’re not like a lot of the people out there in racing that have millions they can just waste on racing, so it’s always been a struggle. … We just know how hard it is.”

The burden the team faced going into 2020 was made easier during a two-day stretch over the Christmas holiday while Tommy Joe visited his family in Mississippi.

He had contacted Ken Gilreath, who sponsored him in races at Bristol over the last few years. Martins called only expecting Gilreath to commit to Bristol again.

“He said basically, ‘How much are you trying to raise? How much are you really needing to do this?’” Martins recalls. “When I told him, he said ‘Ok, well let me get back to you’ and called me back the next day and said ‘Can I just write you a check for this much?'”

The amount offered elicited a response of “Are you kidding me?” from Martins.

Gilreath’s properties, AAN Adjusters and Gilreath Farms Red Angus, will be on Martins’ No. 44 Chevrolet for 25 of the 33 races this year. Another long-time sponsor, Diamond Gusset Jeans, will be on the car for four races.

Inside Martins Motorsports’ shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (By Daniel McFadin).

“It completely changed the outlook of our season and I can say that with extreme confidence,” Martins says. “We were going to have to do this with a shoestring budget, really small, could not withstand a lot of bad luck or anything bad happening to us, especially early going.

“Now we were able to buy more equipment, hire people earlier (four full-time employees), get a hauler (purchased from the defunct TriStar Motorsports) and really dress all of our stuff up to where we really did look professional showing up to our first race. It completely changed the way we’re approaching the season from a competitive standpoint.”

To put it in perspective, before Gilreath came on board, Martins was mapping out a season where he’d ask sponsors for $10,000 per race weekend.

“That was basically going to help us pay for my tires,” Martins says. “Ken didn’t cut me a check for that amount of money, alright? That’s about as close as I can get with it.”

Tommy Joe puts Martins Motorsports’ budget for the year “somewhere around a million bucks.

“That’s to do everything: to pay people, that’s travel, that’s your engines, tires, everything.  “

Thursday, Jan. 30: 13 days before Daytona

 It’s late afternoon and Martins Motorsports’ resurrection continues under the watchful eye of crew chief Danny Johnson.

In the team’s shop – which it rents from L.W. Miller, the director of motorsports at JR Motorsports – five men are at work on four of the team’s five cars. Above their heads hangs a banner from when J.R. Heffner won an Eldora heat race for the team in 2016.

Martins Motorsports’ shop crew. From left: Brad Perez, Jay Lopez, Craig Osborne, Ryan Towels, Dan Pharr and crew chief Danny Johnson. (By Daniel McFadin)

Two of them are interns from the NASCAR Technical Institute who will become full-time employees later in the year.

The group operates in a shop small enough for team members to affectionately refer to it as a “studio shop” or “Hendrick’s parts room.”

A 45-year-old Virginia native, Johnson is preparing for his first full-time season as a crew chief in NASCAR.

A seasoned car chief, Johnson’s first chance to crew chief in the Xfinity Series came last year with Carl Long’s team, including five races with Finchum and one with Tommy Joe.

With the Martins announcing their intentions to field a team in the middle of December, Johnson has only been on the job for a month at this point, working 12-15 hours days, six days a week.

“If you had come last week, the level of intensity and the stress level was probably thru the roof,” Johnson says. “This week not so much. Just fighting a lot of little things.”

That includes getting the right parts and pieces for two of their cars, which were purchased from GMS Racing after it folded its Xfinity operation at the end of last season.

“Some of the parts and pieces that are on our other (cars) don’t fit up to this, so we’ve been changing some odd and ends stuff there,” Johnson says. “But for the most part the stress level is, it’s up there. … If this wasn’t a complete startup deal, it wouldn’t be as bad. But we got a little later start than the rest of our competition.”

While Martins Motorsports is going into 2020 with its best sponsorship deal ever and two relatively new cars in its arsenal, they’re at a disadvantage in two important areas: Points and engines.

Due to their late start, the team was unable to buy points from any other team or lease any engines from top-tier organizations.

Combine NASCAR reducing the Xfinity field to 36 cars and the first few races guaranteeing starting spots based on last year’s points standings, and the No. 44 team can’t afford a mishap.

Martins acknowledges the “stressful time” for him and the team, but it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for what they’re about to undertake.

“For the first time ever in my life I’m like, ‘You know what? I think we’ve got a pretty good plan here in place,’” he says. “So I am very, very blessed with the sponsors I’ve been able to find, with my dad having a partner in this business with Rodney Riessen, with Danny Johnson having experience in the Xfinity Series coming in as our crew chief. We are in a spot where it’s a better situation than I’ve ever had in my life and it just happens to be a team with my name on it.”