NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday night’s Blu-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 (7:30 p.m ET, FS1, MRN)

Will New Car End “Big 3’s” Dominance In Martinsville?

The first night race of the season is here as we’ll run 400 laps under the lights at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway this weekend. That’s a big change from a few years ago to where Martinsville didn’t have lights ready for NASCAR as well as the distance always being 500 laps.

How much of a factor will that play?

So far, this new car has proven to be just what we expected it to be. 7 races down, 7 different winners from 5 different organizations. Will Martinsville be a place to keep this going?

To find the winner, you can’t really look past the “Big 3” on Saturday night. JGR, Penske and Hendrick Motorsports. This trio has combined to win each of the last 7 races on the Virginia paperclip including 14 out of the last 15 overall.

Last week in Richmond, another short track, they took 8 of the top 9 finishing positions.

Combined, you get eight of the top 10 finishers from the 2020 June race too between these three organization. They also took five of the top six spots in the playoff race that year too, then went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 last April and 1-2-3-4-5 in the Fall race.

Does the new car alter their dominance? I don’t honestly see how it does since it’s such a short track and aero is thrown out the window.

JGR and Penske would be the ones to beat normally as they’ve put four cars in the top five of the finishing order in three of the last six Martinsville races and have won six of the last eight there too among themselves. JGR came out of their funk last weekend and have the drivers to shine under the lights.

Martin Truex Jr. (winner of 3 out of the last 5 here), Denny Hamlin (4 top 5’s last 7 in Martinsville), Kyle Busch (11 top 10’s in last 13) and Christopher Bell (7th last year) having had solid races on the Virginia paperclip lately.

In Penske’s case, Austin Cindric is a rookie but has gotten better in his three NXS starts in being 10th to 6th to 2nd, but he was also 21st and 10th in his 2 Truck tries too. I just don’t see a rookie driver winning Martinsville. His two teammates though could be factors in Joey Logano (7 top 10’s in his last 8) and Ryan Blaney (5 top 5’s last 8).

HMS has won 2 of the last 3 but both were in the Fall race. However, the fall race has ended under the lights though too which could be an advantage in its own right. They’ve not won a spring race since 2013 though.

The thing is, William Byron has 3 top 5 finishes in his last 5 starts on the season, Alex Bowman having 4 top 10’s in the last 5 and Chase Elliott being a recent winner at Martinsville has me thinking this may be the top sleeper team.

I don’t see anyone beating these 11 cars on Saturday night.


MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Will 100 Less Laps Make A Difference?

Martinsville (VA) Speedway will host its shortest NASCAR Cup Series race since 1956 this weekend. See, instead of a pair of 500 lap races like we typically see on the Virginia paperclip each season, they’ve decided to shorten the spring race this year to a 400-lap event. As a result, the April 9 race will now be known as the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400.

The last scheduled 400-lap Cup race run at Martinsville was Oct. 28, 1956 in which Jack Smith was victorious.

The Stages too also been shortened as well. The first stage is 80 laps, the second stage 100 with a final stage of 220 laps to the checkered flag finish.

The playoff race on Oct. 30 though still remains 500 laps.

The main reason for this is likely resulting in the spring race being a night time event. 500 laps under the lights could last nearly four hours if not longer to complete. Taking 100 laps off could get it more in a 3-hour or so wheelhouse which is better for fans in the stands as well as TV too.

However, will it change the racing? I mean you’re truly only talking about a 53 mile differential in mileage. We’ve shortened races at other tracks by 100 miles. This is basically half of that. So, will it truly change the outcome?

It may.

Since the stage era began in 2017, we’ve had 10 Martinsville races. In them, the leader at Lap 400 failed to win the race in the end 5 times. They’ve also won the race 5 times too including 5 of the last 8 overall. On the flip side, the leader at Lap 400 has failed to win the race ouright in each of the last 3 tries too.

Denny Hamlin was the leader at Lap 400 in both races a year ago. Martin Truex Jr. (Spring) and Alex Bowman (Fall) won those respective race.

The Fall race of 2020 saw Ryan Blaney leading on Lap 400. Chase Elliott would win in the end. Prior to that, Truex Jr. was leading on Lap 400 in both the spring race of 2020 and Fall race of 2019. He won on both instances.

Brad Keselowski (spring 2019), Joey Logano (Fall 2018) and Clint Bowyer (Spring 2018) each did the same.

In 2017, Chase Elliott (Fall) and Kyle Busch (Spring) each were leading on Lap 400. Busch (Fall) and Keselowski (Spring) would win.

So, does 100 laps taken off the race alter the eventual winner?


Can Harvick Improve?

No doubt about it, Martinsville kept Kevin Harvick out of the Championship 4 the last two years. Yes, he was struggling from the other two races in the Round of 8 too, but all he had to do was manage on the Virginia paperclip and he’d still be in.

All those playoff points and nine wins in 2020 should have been more than enough for him just snag a top five and advance on. Instead, Martinsville bit him. He just wasn’t good. In fact, he’s not been good there for a while.

In his last 19 Martinsville starts, Harvick has scored just two top fives. He was only 15th and 17th respectively in 2020 and 9th and 12th last year.

With knowing that this track is in the same spot in the same round of the playoffs again this Fall, how much emphasis did Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team put on Martinsville this past offseason? I mean, as long as you can make the Round of 8, all it takes is a win at Martinsville and you’re into the Championship 4. Mix that final round being at Phoenix, a place that has the same horsepower package and downforce levels as Martinsville, it pays to have success with this aero configuration.

Did that spark some changes made between the last two years and this one?

Harvick can show off those hopeful upgrades under the lights this weekend. The thing is, he needs a win as badly now as ever before.

Harvick won nine times in 2020 but all came in the first 29 races. In fact, if you go back to the end of the 2019 season, he had 10 wins in 32 starts. But, over his last 50 starts now, he’s been shutout. However, in saying this, the momentum has now turned back to his side.

Harvick, was only .552-seconds back for his fourth runner-up in the last 46 races.

“Yeah, just proud of everyone on our Ford Mobil 1 Mustang for staying there and having a great strategy and doing everything they did all day,” he said. “First clean day we’ve had all year. Cars have been fast.”

Harvick, said he had a car good enough to win there in the end but just wasn’t close enough to make a move on the final lap.

“Had a shot there at the end,” Harvick continued. “I wanted to be close enough with the white to just take a swipe at him. Yeah, the lap cars there kind of got in the way and I lost a little bit of ground.

“Still a great day for us. Just hopefully a little momentum in a positive direction.”

This could put him in a window to be a factor later on in the year. See, Phoenix sets the title and that’s a place Harvick has won at nine times. He restarted on the front row on the second to last restart there last month. Phoenix, races a lot like Richmond. Harvick, almost won Richmond.

With 11 top 10’s in his last 17 starts now dating back to last year, I’d say they’re close.


MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Does Alex Bowman Need Top 5’s To Show Us More?

Alex Bowman has been the topic of conversation for a few weeks now with drivers seemingly taking shots at him after his wins. They feel like they’re flukes. However, a win is a win and to have the second most victories in the sport since the start of last season has Bowman feeling good about himself.

In saying that, an easy way to silence those doubters? Grab some top fives. He only had eight last year and six the year prior. Literally half of his top fives a season ago were wins. If he wasn’t winning, he only had four top fives in the remaining 32 races.

That’s where the gap is. If he wants to be taken seriously for a championship contender, that’s what he needs to do.

So far this season, he’s already a race winner as well as the Daytona 500 pole sitter. The problem being, we’re seven races into the 2022 campaign and Bowman has just two top fives (1 being his win) and led just 16 laps. He won four times in 2021 but only paced the field in 161 of those laps for the entire year with 98 of those 161 coming in his Dover win.

So, while Bowman has big hopes and dreams, it’s clear what his next step needs to be. He needs to put his No. 48 Chevrolet in the top five consistently because if not, unfortunately his playoff stay may not last past the second round again.

He won the last time out in Martinsville. Can he do so again?


Do New Crew Chiefs Matter More Now Than Ever Before?

A driver and his or her crew chief is like a head coach in football and their quarterback. It’s almost comparable to a marriage. The good ones are long lasting and can really separate themselves from the pack. Find the right combo and off you go. Find the wrong one and it quickly can become toxic. That in turn brings both sides down.

No one said either example is easy though. Marriage isn’t and neither is a driver-crew chief combo.

Gordon-Evernham. Johnson-Knaus. Petty-Inman. Why do you think all the greats in this sport all have good sidekicks? You don’t usually get one producing much success without the other. It’s not a fluke that the best drivers each season have the best crew chiefs for them.

That’s why a driver-crew chief pairing is so integral in the sport to success.

A few years ago, we had Kyle Busch-Adam Stevens, Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers, Martin Truex Jr.-Cole Pearn, Brad Keselowski-Paul Wolfe, Joey Logano-Todd Gordon to go along with Johnson-Knaus.

It was working. These were some of the best combos all at one time than we’ve ever seen. Now, those relationships have almost all changed.

Why?

The sport keeps evolving is why.

One can make a case to where the driver/crew chief pairings in NASCAR now are as important than ever before. See, drivers these days aren’t as well versed in what goes into making a car than they used to be. Back in the 70s or 80s, a lot of the drivers were gearheads in a sense that they could work on their own cars too. Not that some drivers now aren’t, but most couldn’t tell you what goes into a car anymore. They just drive what they were given.

Crew chiefs have to have such a close relationship to know what their driver likes in the car because of that. The drivers can tell you what they need to help their car go faster on track and what areas of the track that they’re struggling in, but some struggle to tell their crew chiefs what changes to the car to make it do what they’re describing. “My car is loose in Turn 3 or my car is plowing in Turn 1 or 2.” That’s normal verbiage from a driver on his scanner to his crew chief during the race. But, they may not be able to tell you how to fix it to make it better.

The crew chief has to hear what the driver is assessing and know what ways to make the car better to drive. They have to be well versed and know the lingo with their driver to make the changes needed.

Without any practice for the final 32 races of 2020 and a majority of the races in 2021, you really have to be well versed with your driver to be sure you’re taking a car with you to the race track each week that has a shot to win. Then, you have to be able to communicate well over the course of the race to make changes as the day goes on.

Not many races now do you not touch the car all race. You have to make adjustments, even if they’re slight because the cars that aren’t perfect, well they’re adjusting and they can make enough adjustments that might make them better than you.

So, you’re racing the car you’re driving, the other cars on track to go along with the track and the conditions as well.

CHARLOTTE MOTOR SPEEDWAY, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – MAY 17: #11: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry FedEx Express and Christopher Gabehart during the All-Star at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2019 in Charlotte Motor Speedway, United States of America. (Photo by Nigel Kinrade / NKP / LAT Images)

Communication. It’s why the earlier point about a marriage is so comparable to a driver and his crew chief or a quarterback and his coach. You have to have a way to communicate effectively with one another.

How many marriages breakdown because of this? It’s the No. 1 cause good or bad to most things on this earth.

It paid off last weekend in Richmond between Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart.

“Yeah, I mean, most times we’re kind of on the same page,” Hamlin said after his first win of the season in the Toyota Owners 400. “When we’re not, I kind of understand my role in it. He’s got way more information than I do.

“I know what my job is when we go long. I know what my job is when we go short. He keeps me informed, but he just tells me what to do, and I try to do my best.

“It’s just a great professional working relationship that has worked well for us.”

That’s also why Kyle Larson and new crew chief last year in Cliff Daniels clicked so well. Daniels, went to school and learned what his driver liked in order for him to communicate with him.

Larson’s championship last year was a direct result to Daniels’ eagerness to learn Kyle Larson. In order for Daniels and Larson to click, Daniels went to school — dirt racing school.

He was an asphalt guy by nature but Larson is a short track dirt guy. In order to learn what his driver would need on a Cup car, he first had to learn what makes him click on dirt.

So, Daniels went to school to learn his new driver and what makes him so good. To do so, you have to witness his greatness on dirt and hope to apply that to asphalt.

“The first thing that I would say, he (Larson) grew up dirt racing out west. I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast. You literally could not get farther apart on the spectrum of racing,” Daniels said.

“The connection that we had was our passion for racing, so yes, I grew up pavement racing on the East Coast, very specific types of racing, very specific way that you progress through the different series. So that was what I was accustomed to.

“Then getting to know him, there was this entire different world of dirt racing that I had really only had small exposure to, some friends in college, maybe some friends in high school a little bit that I kind of learned there, but I took it upon myself to consider myself the weak link between the two of us and that I needed to learn the discipline of dirt racing and get to know Kevin Rumley that was his late model crew chief, get to know Paul Silva, his sprint car crew chief, which I’m very thankful I got to know both of those guys.

“I went to late model races, I went to midget races, I went to sprint car races just to learn that discipline to understand the language that they speak and to understand when he says that racing three or four nights a week makes him better, what does that mean? What does that look like?

“I know Mr. H talked about that having him not race during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week, and when we won our — we were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row. He was racing two or three nights a week then, and I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.

“And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.

“Even if we had Cup practice and Cup qualifying, I would not have seen Kyle Larson on the front row of some race getting beat by anybody that he could then tell me, Hey, man, when this guy beat me, this is what I did wrong, and I could see this playing out in a Cup race or sprint race or late model race or whatever.

“That perspective for me taught me a lot so that when we talked during the week of our approach for a Cup race, not only the Cup race in its entirety, but like, Hey, man, how do you win the last restart? How do you set up a guy to pass for the win, whether it’s at the end of a playoff race or not, championship race or not, how do you position yourself? How do I make adjustments to the car? How does he see what he needs to see? That meant so much to me throughout the year.

“I know it did to him. I don’t know that he recognized it at first, that I was learning that much from him; but later in the year, especially in the playoffs, he knew the page that I was on, kind of learning from him and, again, trying to understand that world and understand him more, that I could put underneath of him what he needed to go get it done.

“We were the third or the fourth place car for most of the day today. For the final restart, we made a handful of adjustments, had an amazing pit stop, and our car held off everyone in the field for the final run of the race. Well, I made a lot of adjustments to do that because I knew what he needed, if that makes sense.

“All of that — I know I’m rambling a bit, but all of that led us to that final pit stop, those final adjustments to get it done.”

A similar approach is how Greg Ives and Alex Bowman are working. Ives, is learning from past mistakes and Bowman is thriving based off of that.

A prime example is how he won last Sunday’s race in Las Vegas. See, you have to go back to the 2020 spring race there. Bowman, was second coming to the final caution. They elected to pit that day in that part of the race and it cost them a win that day.

With Bowman running fourth this time around and a yellow with three laps-to-go, he wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

“I’ve been prepared since 2020 for this one,” Ives said.

“Another late caution, Alex was fast. Him and Ryan Blaney were having a good battle. Caution comes out late, and we all elect to pit. Some guys stayed out. We made the wrong call. I made the wrong call.

“We’ve talked about this redemption for a long time. It’s something that never goes away. I may get the years messed up, the time messed up, but I know 10 years from now it’s going to be the same. I made a bad call, redeemed myself a couple years later on it.

“We talked about it a little bit on the radio. Like Alex says, I’m a little bit of a wriggler. This is what we talked about. We didn’t really want to say exactly what we wanted to do, but I feel like him in the car wanted us to stay out, me thinking everybody was going to come down and at least take two tires, and ultimately that was the right call.

“I got lucky maybe with that call and lucky that we have Alex driving that thing, picking up on the restarts. He had a lot of confidence on restarts all day. It doesn’t come down to the last restart and say, Yeah, I got confidence now. It comes down to every restart he was confident in the race car, in what he was capable of, and slowly got us to the point where two tires he wasn’t going to lose.”

Ives and Bowman knew via Kyle Larson’s win last week that they’d take two tires. He knew the three in front would likely take four. So, why not gamble?

“Ultimately when it came out that way, you try to figure out who you can work with and who you can’t,” Ives said. “Ultimately for me it was the front row. If we didn’t get the front row, we weren’t going to win the thing. We might have finished 2nd to 20th. That was my mindset. It wasn’t planned. We don’t have time to plan that well for all that.

“Ultimately I know the situation, the 5, how Cliff thinks. Like I said, we work together. He’s got a win. He’s going to gamble. He’s going to either take two tires or stay out. He pitted. I knew two tires were coming. Same with Rudy. Trying to win the race. We have great cars. We have the speed capable of giving us a front row and winning the thing.

“Ultimately, like I said, we came out on top, but there was no plan between all of us, that’s for sure.”

Well, with only the fourth overtime in Cup Series history at Vegas, it only allowed for two green flag laps until the checkered. With William Byron lining up in third too, it allowed Larson and Bowman to pull away and battle each other for the win.

“I was really surprised,” he said. “On the front row there, you have to run so much throttle. We had been free on the short run, pretty good on the long run. I mean, I kind of feel like I know. Obviously a lot has changed with this race car, but typically two tires tighten you up a ton.

“We were on old tires earlier in the day, like cold old tires. When we had the pit road issue, we came back and put old tires on. I was super tight the whole run. I was worried we were going to be super tight.

“On the front row, you got to drive it like it’s going to stick. Thankfully it stuck.”

Bowman, prevailed by just .178-seconds in what was the third closest finish in Vegas history over Larson who netted his third runner-up in 12 starts on the 1.5-mile track. That ties Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most ever there.

This thing was so fast all day. Just never really had the track position we needed to show it,” Bowman said. “Man, what a call by (crew chief) Greg Ives and the guys to take two (tires) there. Obviously it paid off. Racing Kyle (Larson) is always fun. Got to race him for a couple wins. We’ve always raced each other super clean and super respectfully. Just can’t say enough about these guys. It’s been a pretty awful start to the year, so to come out here and get a win on a last restart deal is pretty special.”

This was a similar circumstance to their Richmond win together last spring.

Bowman led exactly 11 laps in the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Richmond Raceway. They were the most important ones though too. Bowman, had help via a late race caution when Kevin Harvick got into the Turn 1 SAFER barrier on Lap 382 of 400 to bring out the final caution. The drivers all came down pit road and there Bowman was getting an adjustment to his No. 48 Chevrolet that he didn’t even know was occurring.

Ives learned of this move when he was on top of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s pit box a few years ago.

Bowman, would restart third, one row behind Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. At that point of the race, Hamlin had led over half of the race and was restarting in the top spot. He took the lead on pit road during that yellow flag pit sequence when he got by Logano on pit lane.

See, Hamlin who had swept both stages prior, was on the bumper of Logano in the closing laps for the lead and what he thought would be the race win. Then, Harvick crashes and changes everything all over again.

Logano, led 49 laps, came out of the pits second and hoping it would be a battle between he and Hamlin for the win. Prior to the final restart, Logano and Hamlin had combined to lead 179 of the previous 182 laps. Instead, it was Bowman who came out of no where and snookered them both.

Ives’ call for an adjustment paid off for them and put Hamlin behind.

“We just didn’t take off very good there,” Hamlin said of the final restart. “Definitely was the worse that our car took off after a restart. The 48, I’m guessing, his tires pumped up and he was able to take off there, get the lead and then build a lead big enough I didn’t have enough time to get back to him.”

Logano agreed with that too.

“I think that’s probably what it kind of came down to,” Logano said on Sunday. “They (Bowman) made great adjustments to make their car fire off better and what we saw was him being lights out for five, six laps. Then, it equaled out. Then last maybe four, five laps, Denny and I were able to catch him a little bit back.

“I’m just assuming he pumped up his pressure. I’m not sure how much. But seemed like the obvoius play to me. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the strategy of the play, right? IF he didn’t get to the lead in the first two or three laps, he was done, right? He was going to probably finish fifth or sixth. That’s the gamble they took. He took advantage of it, got by everybody pretty quick and kind of made us all look kind of goofy there for a minute.”

Bowman said that even he was surprised by the car coming around on that final restart.

“It did not go the way I thought it was going to go,” said Bowman. “We were pretty awful on short runs all day. To be honest with you, when the caution came out, I was like ‘man we’re going to struggle to get out of here with a top five.’ When we drove away, I was like, “oh my gosh, what is happening?’

“I don’t have a clue what Ives did. I didn’t see a wedge wrench go in it, so I would say air pressure stuff which is typically our go to for short run vs. long run stuff. I sure woke it up, that’s for sure.”

It goes to show you how important and driver-crew chief relationship is in this sport. This is the new way to get it done so the old way essentially is out. It’s constantly evolving and something to evolve, you need a new voice.

A new way to practice. A new way to qualify. A new car. Limited track time. Nothing is the same now than it was two years ago. That’s why we’ve seen so much changeover in recent years. We have just five driver-crew chief pairings left in the Cup Series that was around in 2019.

Chase Elliott-Alan Gustafson

Alex Bowman-Greg Ives

Denny Hamlin-Chris Gabehart

Kevin Harvick-Rodney Childers

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.-Brian Pattie

That’s it. That’s the list.

I mean between the 2019 and 2020 season, Penske swapped out all three driver-crew chief combos. Entering 2022, 2 of the 3 are different again from 2021.

Also, if you take the driver-crew chief list from just last year’s Daytona 500 even and look at the one from last month, only 17 pairings are left out of 44 entries on that list.

All four at HMS and JGR each remained status quo. Pattie remains with Stenhouse Jr. SHR announced their plans with Harvick-Childers continuing and the same with two of his three teammates but the other in Aric Almirola gets Drew Blickensderfer who moves over from Front Row Motorsports. In return, FRM signed Blake Harris from JGR to quarterback Michael McDowell’s team.

23XI Racing removed the interim tag from Bootie Barker who initially was Chris Wheeler to start 2021 off with and signed Billy Scott to reunite him with Kurt Busch. Brad Keselowski took Busch’s crew chief last year in Matt McCall to RFK Racing.

Jonathan Hassler replaces the retired Todd Gordon on Ryan Blaney’s side at Team Penske while Austin Cindric now gets paired with Keselowski’s crew chief Jeremy Bullins.

Erik Jones gets Dave Elenz who replaces Jerry Baxter as his teammate Ty Dillon is paired with first year crew chief Jerame Donley.

That’s the nature of the business now and I think it’s always going to be this way moving forward.

Since the start of last season, Larson and Daniels have won 11 races together. That’s most in the sport. Bowman and Ives are second with five. Those two plus Elliott and Gustafson and the fourth between William Byron and Rudy Fugle may have HMS with the best driver-crew chief combos in the sport.

Elliott-Gustafson won the championship in 2020 and Byron-Fugle had a win, 12 top fives, 20 top 10’s and 425 laps led a year ago in 36 races together. In 108 prior starts without Fugle, Byron had one win, 9 top fives, 31 top 10’s and 434 laps led.

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