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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.”

In the drivers seat: A look at one of the coolest jobs in NASCAR

Photo: Dustin Long
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Some moments they are Joey Logano. Other times they are Jimmie Johnson. Or Kevin Harvick. Or some other driver.

This isn’t a video game or make-believe. This is role-playing in the real world: They pilot a Cup car. Crew members leap from the wall. Air guns whine. Lug nuts fly.

Cup drivers rarely have time to take part in pit practice. So someone has to drive the car. That perk typically goes to an entry-level employee whose duties often include gluing lug nuts to wheels, stacking tires and monitoring air tanks.

Mark Morrison said he’ll never forget the first time he drove the car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports.

That was 17 years ago.

One of the sport’s coolest jobs is more than a joy ride. Teams rely on these drivers to place the car in the right position so pit crews can hone their skills. With track position critical and tenths of a second the difference between winning and losing, what happens in pit practice can make a difference in a race.

It all begins with who is driving the car.

THE FRATERNITY OF PIT CAR DRIVERS

Marcus Horton is 30 but looks young enough to get carded. His father, Phil, is the pit coach for the Drive for Diversity program but Marcus Horton didn’t plan to be a pit crew member.

He has a business degree from Marshall University but admits: “For me, I wouldn’t want to be in an office all day. I like getting my hands dirty. I probably should have took up something different in college than business. I like art, I like photographs, but I’m not sure how well that was going to translate into the real world. I thought maybe I should do something that would benefit me in the long run.”

A couple of years after graduating, Horton asked his dad if he would coach him to be a pit crew member. The younger Horton was in the Drive for Diversity program for three years and served as a pit crew member for Carl Long’s Xfinity team last year. Horton joined Stewart-Haas Racing in December as a developmental pit crew member.

Erick Harps drove the car during pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports until a recent promotion to the engine shop. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Erick Harps, 22, was recently promoted to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports, ending his tenure driving the pit car. He trained at Universal Technical Institute in California. Harps moved to North Carolina two years ago to work in the sport. About six months after he arrived, he got a job at Hendrick Motorsports.

Chris Tomberlin, 22, joined Team Penske on Jan. 2 as a developmental pit crew member. He will graduate this year from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he was a receiver on the football team.

“I’ve always been a fan of racing,” Tomberlin said. “The (job) opportunity presented itself. I couldn’t not accept it.”

That was before he found out he would be driving a stock car.

NOT YOUR FATHER’S CAR

When Harps told his parents he drove a car in pit practice at Hendrick Motorsports, his mother screamed in excitement.

But that wasn’t the first time he had been in a car. He had to undergo training — as any Hendrick pit car driver does — before taking part in live pit stops.

“You can’t step into one of them and think you’re going to drive it,” Harps said.

Hendrick Motorsports’ car has a race engine, providing more horsepower than a standard passenger car. The Hendrick car has a manual transmission, not automatic like many passenger cars, so if you can’t drive a stick, you wouldn’t be able to drive these cars.

Hendrick Motorsports also sets the car for each track. With the series heading to Talladega Superspeedway, that means the car will have a smaller brake package. 

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they have three different pit cars, so Horton has to know each of them. Each steering wheel is different. One is tight, another turns more freely and the other one rates between the two. The brakes also are different in each car. They’re touchy on one car, less so on the others.

“Every day it’s a like a new day for me trying to figure out where the car is going to stop and how I’m going to handle it,” Horton said.

That’s why each driver makes test runs before pit crews jump in front of the car.

“SILVER DOLLAR EYES”

One of the biggest adjustments for any pit car driver is seeing people run in front of the car during practice.

“The craziest thing is just from driving normally out on the roads, your instinct is to avoid a person” said Andy Papathanassiou, director of human performance at Hendrick Motorsports and a former pit car driver.

Having people run in front of the car is jarring for new pit car drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“But when you are driving a pit practice car, you have to just focus on your mark because there are guys jumping all around you and you can’t veer from your path or then they will be in danger. So you have to literally put the blinders on and just expect that they’re going to get out of your way.”

Chris Krieg, pit crew coach at Stewart-Haas Racing, says when pit car drivers first do live stops, they all have the same condition. He calls it “silver dollar eyes” for how their eyes widen.

Horton admits when the pit crews started jumping in front of him, it altered how he entered the pit stall.

“I was stopping earlier and slowing down a lot sooner,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody on our team. It was definitely a hard time because they would be like ‘You can bring it in hotter,’ and I’d be like, ‘Actually I can’t because I think I’m going to hit you guys if I do that.’”

DO YOUR JOB

If the car stops beyond where the crew is positioned, they have to adjust and it slows the stop. Same for when the car stops too short.

There are times when a pit coach will tell the driver to purposely stop short or long or close to the pit wall to test the pit crew and prepare them for possible race situations. Other times, it’s more important to hit the right spots so the pit crew can get their reps.

“The more you practice during the week with the guy who knows exactly how to put the car where he needs to put it, the better you feel for the race track on Sunday,” said Landon Walker, fueler for William Byron’s team.

At Stewart-Haas Racing, they’ll have Horton or whoever else is driving the car to try to imitate each of the drivers for the pit crews. Each driver has their own nuance on how they enter the stall, something you likely can’t tell unless you saw them pit time after time. There are those who will lock their brakes to stop or roll the car in or stop short consistently. 

“The (pit car) driver is critical,” Krieg said. “If we waste a bunch of practice because they’re not hitting the marks where we need them to, they’re wasting time and reps and beating and banging on the crews’ body. Every rep is valuable and those guys have to be spot on.”

A PART OF THE ACTION

It’s a ride of a lifetime even if one is only traveling about 50 yards to the pit stall.

“It’s got a lot of power behind it,” Harps said. “The clutch is not an easy thing to overcome just because it’s stronger than a regular clutch. You have to have a lot of leg power. It’s very hard to get going without spinning the tire.”

Once the car stops in the stall, there’s still more for the driver to do. Keep the wheel straight for the tire changers. Don’t stall the car.

“It’s cool to actually be able to feel the changers hit their lugs and feel the jackman make his first punch on the car, feel the carriers slamming that tire on the car,” Tomberlin said. “It’s rare to be able to experience it.”

It’s an experience only a few get. It’s quite a ride.

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Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks at Phoenix

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NASCAR’s top three national series head to Phoenix this weekend to set the championship field for each series:

Cup – Can-Am 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-eight cars are on the preliminary entry list for this weekend’s race.

DJ Kennington is listed in the No. 7 car for Premium Motorsports.

Obaika Racing announced Wednesday morning that Tanner Berryhill will drive the No. 97 and make his Cup debut. The Cup entry list had not been updated by Wednesday morning to include that.

Cody Ware will drive the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing.

Carl Long‘s No. 66 team has withdrawn.

Click here for Cup entry list

Xfinity – Whelen Trusted to Perform 200 (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC)

There are 40 cars entered for this event.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Truck – Lucas Oil 150 (8:30 p.m., ET Friday on FS1)

There are 31 entries for this race. Derek Kraus, a 17-year-old who finished fourth in the K&N West Series standings, will make his Truck debut this weekend.

Click here for Truck entry list

Carl Long explains why No. 66 Cup team withdrew at Texas

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Carl Long said in a Facebook post that the No. 66 Cup team with driver Timmy Hill withdrew Friday because it did not have a sealed engine at Texas Motor Speedway.

Section 20.6.1.1.1.b of the Cup Rule Book states that “Teams that are not considered ‘full-time’ teams will not be permitted to compete in more than two consecutive Points Events without using a short block sealed engine that has been used in Competition in a preceding Event(s).”

Long explained why he didn’t have a sealed engine in his Facebook post:

“My last sealed engine was ran at Dover. The oil pump broke … killing engine. Next was our 1st race, Kansas, with our new engine program. Engine 1 broke a valve at beginning of Saturday practice. Then we had a huge amount of issues getting backup engine to fit. Neither of these engines were sealed at that time and both were destroyed.

“So we rented one from PME at Martinsville, a piece we ran earlier, but it did not have seals as the heads were removed for maintenance. So it was sealed at Martinsville, however, it saw fire damage and could not be used at Texas.

“I went to Texas with a fresh engine, knowing we had plenty of sealed engine starts on the #66 … Not knowing we were classified as a part time team. The official told a person on the crew I had to be sealed in Texas at the Martinsville race. I had no sealed engines and I knew we had plenty of sealed starts. Not realizing we are part time classified by NASCAR. During Xfinity practice I was called to the Cup hauler. My engine is not sealed and therefore not eligible to qualify. I pleaded my case. I have destroyed all my sealed engines. My backup is not sealed, and the one in my Phoenix car is not sealed.

“At this time we will be out of Cup racing. I can’t run at Phoenix without a sealed engine. So I will not be able to go to Homestead as I don’t have one ran at Phoenix. I could run a sealed engine from another team, but unfortunately their prices are usually more than we can afford. 

“The sponsors have been great in supporting us. I don’t see them remaining with us. What we do receive is just not enough $ to rent another engine and pay the race cost.”

On the issue of being a part-time or full-time team, Section 20.6.1.1.1.c of the Cup Rule Book states the definition of a full-time team is one that is “entered in all Events for the season).” Long’s team had not entered all the events this season, so remained classified a part-time team even though he had been at all races since July.

UPDATE: In a Facebook post Saturday, Long wrote: “We have a plan to return to Cup in Phoenix … hope to see you there!” but had no details.

Long also wrote in his Facebook post: “Unless something happens unexpectedly … We are done in Cup for 2018. I hope to build on 2019 with 2 cars at Daytona in Cup (yes, I’m still stupid) and 2 Xfinity cars.”

Five Cup cars to be docked practice time at Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon are among those who will be penalized time in Friday’s first Cup practice session at Darlington Raceway.

NASCAR announced that Dillon will be docked 30 minutes for failing inspection before the Bristol race three times.

Busch will be docked 15 minutes for failing inspection before the Bristol race twice.

David Ragan, Timmy Hill and Derrike Cope each will be penalized 15 minutes for being late to inspection at Bristol.

NASCAR also stated that the No. 7 car will be penalized 15 minutes of practice time for failing inspection twice at Bristol. That car is not entered at Darlington and will serve its penalty the next time it enters a Cup event.

In the Xfinity Series, three cars will be penalized practice time Friday .

Ryan Reed, Carl Long and Mike Harmon each will be docked 15 minutes for being out of the garage late. NASCAR also announced that the No. 13 car will be penalized 15 minutes for failing inspection two times at Road America. That car is not at Darlington. It will serve its  penalty the next time it enters an Xfinity race.