Drivers were testing this week at Martinsville Speedway with an eye toward the track’s 2019 “final exam” on Oct. 27: the First Data 500, the first race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 8.
Coming into the First Data 500, eight drivers will remain in contention for the Monster Energy Series championship. Races at Martinsville, Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway will pare the field to the “Championship 4” who will then battle for the title in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In addition to Martinsville Speedway’s playoff race, there also is considerable anticipation in the air about next season’s May 9 NASCAR Cup Series event that will be run entirely under the lights, a first for NASCAR at the historic paperclip-shaped half-mile oval.
Count Clint Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, among those competitors eager for the not-so-distant Martinsville future. Bowyer, a spring-race winner here in 2018, thinks he should always be considered a Martinsville contender.
But that wasn’t always the case.
“I dig this place … but I haven’t always dug this place,” Bowyer said Wednesday, the final day of the two-day Goodyear Tire Test.
“Martinsville is definitely an acquired taste. This isn’t some place where you just show up and set the world on fire. You have to learn how to be patient, how to discipline yourself.”
Bowyer was joined at this week’s test by fellow Ford drivers Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard.
Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske, finished fourth in this year’s Martinsville spring race, the STP 500. His Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have won the last two Martinsville races.
“I don’t think we’re due [for a victory] but I think we’ve run well enough here the last couple years,” Blaney said. “When I first came here I was awful but we’ve kind of figured it out. We’ve done well at getting better here.”
Menard drives the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers Racing organization based in Stuart, Virginia. The Wood Brothers consider Martinsville their home track and the feeling is mutual; the Turn 1 Tower was recently renamed the Glen Wood Tower in honor of the late family patriarch who died in January.
Menard sported a Glen Wood t-shirt for Wednesday’s interview session with area media, saying, “I thought it was an appropriate shirt to wear today. Every time I go to Martinsville I try to honor the Woods in some way.”
The longtime buzz for night racing at Martinsville led to the installation of lights in 2016. Since, there have been two Late Model stock car events contested under the lights. The third is coming up on Oct. 5, the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.
Next spring’s NASCAR Cup Series event is taking the buzz to a new level.
“I think it’s gonna be real neat to have a night race here; I’ve been saying that for a long time,” Bowyer said. “It was super cool to be on the track last night – it was a first for me here.
“Having a night race here will be a huge gain for the track, for the fans. Sparks fly; there’s not a better place to have a night race than Martinsville. Saturday night, short-track specials, Friday nights. That’s what we all grew up on … on short tracks, beatin’ and bangin’ under the lights. This track has all of that, so why not?
“Martinsville has always been a premium [experience] and that’s for a racer and a fan. When I look for a track to be able to put on a show for the fans, it’s always been Martinsville.”
Added Menard: “Obviously, a night race is a big deal. You think of night racing, you think of short tracks. Martinsville is a true short track, so having a night race makes perfect sense.”