Wednesday was a historic day for NASCAR. Late this afternoon, they made an announcement to ban the use of any confederate flags at their race tracks. A few hours later, the green flag would drop for the first night race for the sport at the historic Martinsville (VA) Speedway. The Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 didn’t disappoint.
The guys that were at their best at the start faded while the guys who struggled early on made a comeback. Martin Truex Jr. overcame a bad handling race car early and a commitment line violation at the end of Stage 1 to win the first primetime race on the .526-mile Virginia oval for NASCAR’s premiere series.
Truex, passed Brad Keselowski on Lap 369 and would lead the final 131 laps en route to his 27th victory of his career, breaking a tie with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Fred Lorenzen for 30th on the all-time wins list. It also ends a 13 race winless streak as his last win came on this very race track last October.
Truex, started off 0-for-26 in his career at Martinsville but has now won two in-a-row and also four of his last six on short tracks too. He has five top five finishes in his last six tries at Martinsville.
“We’ve been working a long time on trying to figure this place out and chipped away at it,” Truex said following his win on Wednesday night. “The last couple of years we’ve been really strong. 2018 was a heartbreaker with the end of the race there. Last year, to get the win and now this year.
“Hats off to the guys. We started the first run and pushed the right front tire off and we were terrible. Really good adjustments from the guys. Just want to thank everyone who makes this possible.
He bested the Team Penske trio as they would finish 2-3-4. Ryan Blaney led their charge as he started off the night on the pole but fell a lap down just 49 laps into the race while battling a bad handling race car too. He’d rebound to get up to second again, then the lead, before a pit road penalty for his team. He’d go from first to 18th back up to second in the final 101 laps in his No. 12 Ford for his third straight top five at Martinsville and fourth in his last five tries. He’s also had four top four finishes in his last five starts on the season as well.
Brad Keselowski too rebounded from early race handling problems to finish third in his No. 2 Ford for his sixth straight top 10 in 2020 and fourth straight top five at Martinsville. He’s also had nine consecutive top 10 finishes on the track as well now.
Joey Logano had the best car early in leading a race-high 234 of 500 laps en route to a fourth place finish in his No. 22 Ford. That was his first top five scored on the season since his win at Phoenix back on March 8 but his fourth top eight in his last five Martinsville starts.
Chase Elliott rounded out the top five in his No. 9 Chevrolet.
Here are my main takeaways.
Toyota’s Struggle To Land Setups Right
Following a solid day of racing last Sunday in Atlanta, the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers warned that putting three cars in the top five of the finishing order on the 1.54-mile Georgia race track could be smoke and mirrors.
All of them warned that Atlanta is vastly different that most other tracks that they go to on a given season. Landing a setup right there won’t translate well over to landing a set up somewhere else.
So, despite having great past success at Martinsville in recent history, the Toyota camp overall struggled in Wednesday night’s race.
Yes, Martin Truex Jr. won, but he was the only one to have success anyways. Truex, was the only one to score stage points in the first stage. He was also the only one on the lead lap in Stage 2. Erik Jones and Christopher Bell were non factors all night while Kyle Busch (brakes) and Denny Hamlin (handling) struggled from the get go.
Jones (18th), Hamlin (23rd) and Busch (25th) were midpack cars in Stage 1. In Stage 2, Truex never rebounded from a penalty for a commitment line violation and would finish 15th at Lap 260. Jones, was one lap down in 22nd, Busch two laps down in 25th and Hamlin three laps off pace in 27th.
It never got any better as they’d finish 19th (Busch), 20th (Jones) and 26th (Hamlin) respectively.
An issue with this is, the lack of practice time. While most drivers agree that we can get away without any practice now, the lack of on track time outside of the races themselves are hurting JGR. Truex, eluded to that in Atlanta.
“I think it’s been a little bit tough not having practice and things like that to hit it right,” Truex said following a third place finish in Atlanta on Sunday. “I think our cars are close. I don’t think we’re dominant. I think there’s some really fast cars out there that we’re trying to catch up to. We really have to do all the little things right to be able to put ourselves in position to win races, and we’ve done that. We’ve been in position a few times this season, and things didn’t go the way we needed them to, and when you’re not a dominant car, you’re not just going to blow by through the field when you have issues. We definitely know we need to get better.”
Truex, says that it’s hard on them to prepare for the races even because in the Coca-Cola 600, they dominated then came back a few days later and struggled to stay in the top 25.
“That’s just where the practice thing comes in,” Truex continued. “You go back to the racetrack with your best guess of what you think is going to work, and it’s not always what you think it’s going to be. You give a great driver and crew chief and engineer and team an hour to work on a race car, they’re going to get it better.”
Martinsville, proved this. It wasn’t like they thought it was going to be and it put them behind early. Truex, was the only one with anything for the track.
Blaney From The Back To The Front Multiple Times Tonight
No one likely passed as many cars as Ryan Blaney did in Wednesday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500. The pole sitter, quickly dropped like an anchor once the green flag dropped. He went from first to a lap down in just 49 laps around the .526-mile Martinsville (VA) Speedway. By the Lap 60 competition caution, he was 30th. He’d move up to 19th on Lap 130, the end of the first stage as he finally got his lap back a few laps prior on Lap 113.
But, at that time of the race, Blaney said that his No. 12 Ford was loose on entry, plowing in the middle of the corner and couldn’t touch the throttle at corner exit. Translation? His car was crap.
But, the race also started off at sunset too and would end under the lights. With cooler temperatures and more grip at night, the track would change. So, Blaney and his crew chief Todd Gordon went to work and it paid off.
On Lap 220, he moved into second. On Lap 272, he moved back to the lead and would look like a legitimate race winning contender. Then, came a pit road penalty on Lap 399 for a crew member coming over the wall too soon. He’d go from first entering pit lane to the tail end of the lead lap in 18th.
They didn’t flinch. Yet again, he came from the back to the front as he’d place his car second in the end. It was his fourth top five finish in his last five starts at Martinsville and his fourth top four result in his last five starts on the season.
Penske Cars The Class Of The Field Wednesday Night
It didn’t start off well for two of the three Team Penske cars in Wednesday night’s race. Ryan Blaney started on the pole but his car was terrible early. It was loose entering the corners, tight in the middle and so bad at exit he couldn’t hit the gas. He went from first to a lap down in 49 laps around the .526-mile Virginia short track. Then, the climb came back on. He was 30th on Lap 40 but moved back to second on Lap 220.
Brad Keselowski also had a terrible handling race car as he went from sixth to 30th in the first handful of laps. Keselowski, was 22nd, one lap down in Stage 1 and 12th in Stage 2.
Meanwhile, the third car in Joey Logano was the far opposite. He won the first stage and led 175 of the first 201 laps.
As we got into the second half of the race, Logano’s faded a bit while Keselowski and Blaney’s turned it up. Over the final couple of hundred laps, they were all three top five contenders. At one point, they were running 1-2-3. They’d get some company up front though by virtue of Martin Truex Jr. who passed Keselowski for the lead on Lap 369 and would lead the final 131 laps as a result en route to the win.
Blaney, Keselowski and Logano finished 2-3-4 behind.
Kurt Busch Consistency
Its been since 2014 since Kurt Busch scored a top five finish in Martinsville. In fact, in his last 28 starts there, he has just four top 10s scored. But, three of those four have come in the last two years though.
On Wednesday night, Busch brought his No. 1 Chevrolet home ninth. He was sixth, 12th and sixth respectively in his previous three starts on the .526-mile race track.
Now, he has five straight top seven finishes on the season and eight of the last nine on the year.
Penske, Gibbs and Hendrick have had the faster race cars, but Busch is next best of the bunch.
Much Better Race This Year Compared To Last Year
The two annual stops to Martinsville a year ago were snoozefests. With a high downforce, low horsepower package, no one could pass. Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in this race last spring. Second place finisher Chase Elliott led 49 of 500 laps himself. Between them, that’s 495 of 500 laps led. Joey Logano led the other five laps in a four lead change race. In the fall playoff race, Martin Truex Jr. led 464 laps with William Byron (30) and Kyle Larson (6) being the only other drivers to pace the field.
Wednesday night was much better. We saw 14 lead changes among eight drivers. That’s more drivers leading this race on Wednesday night than both races last year combined.
There was a ton of passing throughout the field all race as the no practice and no qualifying certainly helped in that.
The quick cars on the season started up front but the setups were a guessing game. As a result, some guessed wrong since they had no on track activity prior to get their setups right. Both front row starters were a lap down by the Lap 60 competition caution. Furthermore, five of the top eight starters were down a lap by the end of the first stage.
By the second stage, some of those a lap down adjusted their cars and were able to starting climbing back up again. Credit the no practice for allowing that.
Then, we had the old aero package back. The 2018 version is here for short tracks this season and like Bristol a couple of weeks ago, Martinsville shined again.
We knew that Penske/JGR would be the cars to beat. They took four of the top five finishing spots in the spring race last year and four of the top five in the October race. They’ve also won five of the last six races on the Virginia paperclip as well entering Wednesday night’s race. That streak extends to six of the last seven as Penske/JGR combined to take the top four spots in the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.
“It feels a little strange out here, to be honest,” Truex Jr. said following winning the race without fans there. But, it will get less awkward over the next few weeks as a limited amount of race fans will be in attendance at Sunday’s race in Homestead and next Sunday’s race at Talladega.
Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 Results
- 19 Truex Jr.
- 12 Blaney
- 2 Keselowski
- 22 Logano
- 9 Elliott
- 88 Bowman
- 21 DiBenedetto
- 24 Byron
- 1 KuBusch
- 48 Johnson
- 43 Wallace Jr.
- 6 Newman
- 17 Buescher
- 34 McDowell
- 4 Harvick -1
- 8 Reddick R -1
- 14 Bowyer -1
- 32 LaJoie -1
- 18 KyBusch -1
- 20 Jones -3
- 47 Stenhouse Jr. -3
- 13 TDillon -3
- 42 Kenseth -3
- 11 Hamlin -3
- 38 Nemechek R -3
- 37 Preece -4
- 96 Suarez -6
- 95 Bell R -6
- 41 Custer R -6
- 15 Poole R -6
- 27 Yeley -7
- 53 Starr -21
- 10 Almirola OUT
- 00 Houff R -26
- 51 Gase -36
- 77 Smithley -50
- 3 ADillon OUT
- 7 Sorenson OUT
- 66 Hill OUT