The Round of 8 will kick off at Martinsville Speedway with the First Data 500. This is the shortest track on the circuit and when the cars are inches apart, they tend to misbehave. There will be a lot of bumping and banging this week and tempers are likely to flair after the race. You can see it Sunday at 2:30pm ET on NBC Sports Net.
The MENCS had a condensed schedule this week. There was no on-track activity Friday. Instead the MENCS had two practices Saturday. It is hard to adjust the cars at this track so the cars that unload fast tend to stay fast all weekend. The two practices sessions should be plenty of time for the teams to dial in their cars for the race this week. Qualifying will be Saturday afternoon at 4pm ET on NBC Sports Net.
Here are the Garage Talk Notes for the practices at Martinsville…
The MENCS received 3 sets of tires for the three practice sessions, 1 set for qualifying and 8 sets for the race. The tire compound used in the race Sunday will be the same tire compound used in the last 3 races at Martinsville. Goodyear has a hard time getting the tires to where on the asphalt and concrete surfaces at this track but they said they liked what they saw in the March in the cold temperatures.
The teams in the playoff have an * next to their names.
* Chase Elliott: Elliott won 2 of the 3 races in the last round of the MENCS Playoffs and he currently has more momentum than any driver in the sport. Elliott should have won the race at Martinsville last year. Over the past 2 seasons the paper-clip tracks ranks as his 5th best. Elliott worked with Jeff Gordon this week in the simulator to work on his rhythm at Martinsville. It is hard to find a better teacher than Gordon. The team worked on their long run speed in practice. Elliott said he found a way to pick up speed on pit road which could really help him Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson: If Johnson is going to win in 2018 it will happen this week. He has 9 wins at Martinsville and he has a 7.91 average finishing position in his 33 races at the track. Johnson made some long runs and said, “I am working on me first… just finding my rhythm. I will bring it to ya and let you know which way we should go.” Johnson looked like he had a top 10 car for Sunday.
Alex Bowman: Bowman overachieved to get to the Round of 12 but now he is eliminated from the playoffs. I doubt this team will give up. Bowman qualified 16th and finished 7th in the May race at Martinsville. This is one of the best tracks for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman was not happy with his car. He said, “It starts out loose and gets tighter as I get deeper in the run. By the end it is way too tight.”
William Byron: Byron does not have much experience at Martinsville because the Xfinity Series does not compete at the track. Byron finished 3rd and 8th in his two Truck Series races and 20th in his MENCS race at the track. The team told Byron, “Work on hitting your marks.” Byron replied, “When I hit my marks it is not bad but when I miss it slightly it wrecks the car.”
Kyle Larson: Larson was my sleeper pick to win the championship and that sure backfired. Larson said they will use the final four races to prepare for 2019. I am not sure how motivated this team will be the rest of the year. Larson has competed in 9 MENCS races at Martinsville and only has 1 finish in the top 10. Larson was working on his long run speed and running the bottom of the track. The No. 42 looked like a top-10 car in practice.
Jamie McMurray: Martinsville has historically been a good track for McMurray but it is hard to trust a lame duck driver. McMurray has finished 35th, 21st, 18th, 35th and 17th on the oval tracks since it was announced he will not be back in the No. 1 car next year. McMurray reported the balance of his car was really good, but his lap times were outside the top 10.
* Kevin Harvick: Harvick said on his Happy Hours show this week, “We are putting a lot of work into the Martinville race. It has been one of my worst tracks, but we know how good we are at Texas and Phoenix. Our goal is for a top five this week and then we should be good in the other two races.” The No. 4 team was working on their long-run speed and running the bottom of the track. They were pretty quiet on the radio, but Harvick ran a lot of laps so he must have liked his car.
* Clint Bowyer: Bowyer won the last race at Martinsville in convincing fusion. He led 215 of the 500 laps. Martinsville ranks as the 3rd best track for Bowyer and winning this week is his best chance of securing a spot in the championship race at Homestead. Bowyer liked his car. He made some long runs and said, “The car is good boys.. If I can focus for 500 laps Sunday we should end up in the same place as last time.” The team told Bowyer, “No one runs the bottom as well as you.”
* Kurt Busch: Busch has a 21.1 average finishing position at Martinsville since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing. He did win his first race at the track in the No. 41 car so there is hope for him this weekend. Busch is tied with Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer for 5th in the MENCS Playoff standings so the No. 41 team will do everything possible to score stage points and finish in the top 10 Sunday. Busch really liked the way his car rolled through the bottom of the track. He said, “The car turns so well that sometimes I hit the curb and it messes up the balance on exit. If I can stop doing that we will be good.” Busch was 2nd fastest at the time.
* Aric Almirola: Almirola admitted after the race at Kansas that Martinsville is his worst track. He currently sits 8th in the MENCS Playoff standings and only 4 drivers advance to Homestead. Almirola needs stage points and must finish in the top 10 in order to avoid a “must win” situation at Texas or Phoenix. The No. 10 car had a lot of problems in the morning practice. They broke a tie-rod and Almirola could not steer the car. They said the problem is fixed and it is no longer an issue.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski has been the 2nd best driver at Martinsville over the past 4 years. He has the second-best average finishing position (4.4) and the second-best driver ranting (117.7). Keselowski said on Race Hub he will be doing his best to help Joey Logano advance in the playoffs (since he is eliminated), but I expect the No. 2 team to go after the win if they have a chance Sunday. The No. 2 team made 4 10-lap runs with different setups for each. They were dialing down there car for the race Sunday and finding information for the No. 22 car. Most of Keselowski’s laps were in the top 7.
* Joey Logano: Logano is the last driver alive in the MENCS Playoffs for Team Penske. I expect the No. 22 team to get a lot of support from the No. 2 and No. 12 cars this weekend. Logano ranks 6th in average finishing position at Martinsville and he has the 4th-best driver rating. Logano did not get on the track until there was 15 minutes left in the morning practice. The No. 22 car was taking all of the information from the No. 2 and No. 12 and putting it into their car before they got onto the track.
Ryan Blaney: Blaney had one of the cars to beat in the last race at Martinsville. He qualified 5th, led 145 laps and finished 3rd. He currently has 2 consecutive top 8 finishes at Martinsville. Blaney looked good in practice. He said, “We are not where we were in the spring but we are close.”
Paul Menard: Menard has competed in 22 MENCS races at Martinsville and he only has one finish in the top 10. In March he qualified 15th and finished 13th. Menard has a 22.2 average finishing position in the playoffs this season so he does not have much momentum heading into the race Sunday. Menard was fighting a tight racecar in practice. Tight is not fast at Martinsville.
* Kyle Busch: Busch is the favorite to win Sunday and he should be. Busch has finished 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 5th, 1st and 5th in his last 6 races at Martinsville. He said after the race at Kansas that he wants to secure his spot at Homestead with a win at his best track (Martinsville). The No. 18 car will be tough to beat this week. Busch made some long runs and he had a lot to complain about. He said, “The entry and exit are good but I am way too tight rolling through the center.” He had the fastest car on the track so it was fastest than what he explained on the radio.
Erik Jones: Jones has competed in 3 MENCS races at Martinsville and he has not had a lot of success. His average starting position is 12th and his average finishing position is 18.33. Jones has the 19th-best driver rating at Martinsville so he will have his work cut out for him this week. The No. 20 car started final practice with the same setup at Kyle Busch. Jones liked his car. He said, “It drivers great around the bottom but I get too tight in traffic. I need to stay in the throttle to get it to power through the corners.” They worked to free him up and he said the adjustments helped.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin will be competing at his home track where he has been to Victory Lane 5 times (second most in the series). Hamlin usually performs well when he has no pressure to win. Now that he is eliminated from the playoffs, Hamlin should run well Sunday. Hamlin made some long runs and said, “The consistency is really good. Each lap feels the same and the entry is really good. The back tires need to be in to the track a little more on exit, but overall it is close.”
Daniel Suarez: Suarez has competed in 3 MENCS races at Martinsville and his best finish is 15th. He also has 4 races in the Truck Series at Martinsville on his resume. His average finishing position at the track in the Truck Series is 11.5 (not very good seeing he was in KBM Trucks). The No. 19 team was concerned about their brakes. The spotter told Suarez, “Your rotors are glowing a lot more than the other drivers. Maybe if we do not drive it in so deep we can save our brakes a little more.”
* Martin Truex Jr.: Many people are saying the No. 78 team is more concerned with their future than they are with winning the 2018 MENCS Championship. The fact is that Truex has the 3rd-best average finishing position in the playoffs (behind Joey Logano and Aric Almirola), so this team is still performing at a high level. Truex sits 3rd in the Playoff Standings and 23 points ahead of the cut line. He needs Stage points and a top 10 finish this week. The No. 78 team worked on their long run speed and it seemed to work. The car had some of the best long-run speed.
Ryan Newman: Martinsville is the toughest track to pass at and Newman is the toughest driver to pass. Combine those two together and it makes Newman a good fantasy pick Sunday. I am concerned about him being more focused about next year than he is about his No. 31 team. Newman made some long runs and said, “It is tight on entry but good everywhere else.” They made some adjustments and Newman said, “We are closer.”
Austin Dillon: Dillon has 10.7 average finishing position in the MENCS Playoffs if you take out the Roval race at Charlotte. That is not too bad. Dillon has finished 2 of his last 5 races at Martinsville in the top 5 so he does know how to turn fast laps at this track. Dillon reported his car was, “Loose on entry.” The No. 3 car was 23rd fastest at the time.
Ty Dillon: Dillon continues to struggle in the No. 13 car. He has only finished 1 race (out of 32) in the top 10 this season. Dillon has competed in 3 MENCS races at Martinsville and his average finishing position is 24.7. He has never finished on the lead lap at this track.
Regan Smith: Smith will continue to fill in for Kasey Kahne in the No. 95 car. Martinsville ranks as the 18th-best track for Smith. The last time he competed at Martinsville was in October of 2016 when he finished 30th. Smith made a lot of 10-lap runs. He said, “The drive off is pretty good. We need to stay focus on that because that is where I need to beat people. I am loose in, but I do not think an air-pressure adjustment will help. I do not want to jeopardize what we have on the exit. Overall, not bad.”
AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger is the best sleeper pick this week. The key to running well at Martinsville is out-braking the completion and not over-cooking the brakes. Few do it better than Allmendinger. He has finished 5 of the last 6 races at Martinsville in the top 11. Allmendinger opened practice with the fastest speed. He said the car rotated through the corner well, he just needed a little help on the exit.
Chris Buescher: Buescher has competed in 6 MENSC races at Martinsville and his average finishing position is 23.17. The No. 37 car had the same setup as the No. 47. The team made a lot of short runs and came in to tweak the car. Most of Buescher’s laps were in the top 20.
Darrell Wallace Jr.: Wallace will be a hard driver to trust this week. He has not finished inside the top 20 at a non-plate track since Michigan in June (16 races ago). He qualified 19th and finished 34th in the March race at Martinsville. He hit everything but the pace car in that race. If I were the pace car driver I would keep my eyes open for the No. 43 car this week. Wallace did not like his car. He said one lap it was tight and one lap it was loose. That has to be hard to fix.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse has been hit or miss in his last 4 races at Martinsville. He has finished 10th, 37th, 10th and 40th at the track since Stage Racing was added. Maybe having Matt Kenseth as a teammate will help Stenhouse Sunday. Stenhouse was complaining his back tires were chattering when he rolled through the corner.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth will be back in the No. 6 car this week and that is not surprising. Martinsville ranks as the 3rd-best track for Kenseth. If he was still in a Joe Gibbs Racing car he would be one of the favorites to win this week. This track is about 60% driver and 40% car so Kenseth should have a good chance to run well Sunday.
David Ragan: There are better tracks to use Ragan at. He has a 27.3 average finishing position in his last 5 races at the track. In March he qualified 28th and finished 25th. His average running position was 27.7. Ragan reported his car was, “Way to tight on entry and exit.” They worked to free him up. Ragan was 31st on the speed chart at the time.
Michael McDowell: McDowell could be a good cheap driver this week. His has finished 21st, 19th, 26th and 18th in his last 4 races at Martinsville. He has scored place differential points in each of the races. We will have to keep an eye on where the No. 34 car qualifies. If he qualified outside the top 25 he will have a lot of value in place differential games Sunday.
Cars that looked good in practice: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott
Good Sleeper Picks: Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Ryan Newman, AJ Allmendinger, Jammie McMurray and Ty Dillon
Click here for Saturday Morning Practice Speeds
Click here for Final Practice Speeds
Best Lap Average in Final Practice
- Clint Bowyer 20.480
- Alex Bowman 20.482
- Erik Jones 20.486
- Kyle Busch 20.490
- Kevin Harvick 20.495
- Martin Truex Jr. 20.497
- Aric Almirola 20.515
- Brad Keselowski 20.521
- Ryan Newman 20.523
- Denny Hamlin 20.526
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