Emotions, action run high during Martinsville playoff races
Thursday October 24, 2019
They say good things come in small packages. Great things do, too. Martinsville Speedway, the only track to host NASCAR premier series races for 71 consecutive seasons, is proof enough of that.
At .526 mile, the legendary layout is the shortest of the short tracks that hosts Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races. But when it comes to action on the track, particularly during NASCAR’s Playoffs, few sites can muster the excitement Martinsville has provided throughout the decades.
Fans can expect more of the same when the series returns for the Oct. 27 running of the First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, SiriusXM NASCAR).
Once again, the race kicks off the Round of 8 in this year’s championship Playoff battle. Seeking a victory and an automatic berth in the Championship 4 next month at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing), the series’ most recent winner and a five-time Martinsville champ; Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) and Kyle Busch (JGR), Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. (JGR) and Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports).
Busch, Harvick and Logano are also previous Martinsville winners. Harvick, Busch, Truex and Logano are former series champions as well.
Martinsville’s fall stop has always been memorable, even more so since 2014 when it became the opening stop of the third round. Playoff participants have claimed four of the five victories.
That wasn’t the case in ’14 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. piloted his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the win. Earnhardt had been ousted from playoff contention the previous week, but the victory couldn’t have been any more meaningful - it came 10 years after an HMS plane crashed while en route to the track, killing all 10 on board.
“I could feel how important it was to him,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the victory lane celebration with team owner Rick Hendrick. “You just know there’s a genuine hug and there’s a hug – his was the real deal.”
Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon scored the win the following season in a race that was just as emotionally charged. The 44-year-old, heading toward retirement, earned a shot a fifth championship with a Martinsville victory that punched his ticket to the title race. His path to the winner’s circle was helped by an on-track incident between Matt Kenseth and race leader Logano.
“Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor,” Gordon said. “But you’ve got to be there and be ready for that moment when It comes, and we were.”
The 2016 race will be remembered as the catalyst that propelled HMS driver Jimmie Johnson into the championship battle where he won a record-tying seventh series title. It was the fifth consecutive fall Martinsville win by a Hendrick team and Johnson’s ninth career win at the popular Virginia stop.
In 2017, Busch moved teammate Hamlin out of the way during an overtime restart to capture the win and earn a berth in the championship race. Post-race fireworks between Hamlin and Chase Elliott concerning an earlier incident again had the crowd on its feet.
“He’s not worth my time,” Elliott, currently the series’ most popular driver, said of Hamlin. “I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race.”
Tempers were still running hot last fall when Logano wheeled his No. 22 Ford to the win after moving leader Truex Jr. out of the way on the final lap of the race.
“This was our shot, maybe our only shot, so we had to make it happen,” Logano said of the close-quarters contact.
With this year’s field of Playoff teams whittled to eight and a berth in the championship once again on the line, the 2019 First Data 500 promises yet another memorable chapter in NASCAR’s popular playoffs.
In addition to the First Data 500 on Sunday, Martinsville will also host the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series this Saturday.
Advance ticket prices for the First Data 500 begin at $47 with youth tickets for fans 17-and-under just $25 regardless of location. Tickets for the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 on Saturday are just $35 and youth 17-and-under are admitted free to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series 200-lap race on Saturday. Friday’s practice day is free to everyone.