Martinsville Weekend Preview: Elliott ‘Chases’ First Win

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott would probably like to forget his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start.

Debuting in the 2015 STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway with much fanfare, Elliott was forced to take his No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the garage on the 74th go-around of the 500-lap race after sustaining heavy damage from two separate wrecks. His crew feverishly worked to get him back out on the track where he battled his way to a 38th-place finish.

“This is a different ball-game,” Elliott said after the race. “These guys are here in the Sprint Cup Series for a reason, and I’ve got some work to do. I have to get better.”

What a difference a year makes.

Widely regarded as one of NASCAR’s next big stars, the 20-year-old enters his second race at Martinsville – Sunday’s STP 500 (1 p.m. on FS1) – coming off a career-best sixth-place finish at Auto Club. He has produced three top-10 finishes in the first five races this season and would likely have four if not for an unfortunate wreck at Las Vegas.

This time, Elliott hits the .526-mile oval known as the paperclip in the No. 24 Chevrolet he inherited from Jeff Gordon – the Martinsville race winner last fall.

“The 24 guys had a great fall race at Martinsville,” Elliott said. “The only thing that I have to go off of is the spring race and it wasn’t very good for me. I’m just trying to look back on that and fix some of the mistakes I made and improve upon that. That’s all I can ask for.”

A five-time winner in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, many believe Elliott will visit Victory Lane at the Sprint Cup level sooner than later.

“The grandfather clock (you win at Martinsville) is one of the coolest trophies you can earn in racing, period. There are a lot of guys that have a bunch of them and some guys who have been doing this for a long time and are still trying to get one. It’s a neat place and such a cool trophy and it would be very special to earn one someday.”

Consistency is key for Rhodes

At the beginning of 2015, Ben Rhodes’ NASCAR future looked as bright as any other of the sport’s young prospects.

The then 18-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native, fresh off a dominant run to the 2014 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship that included five wins and 11 top fives in 16 races, inked a deal with stalwart JR Motorsports to compete in 10 NASCAR XFINITY Series races.

LOUDON, NH - JULY 17:  Ben Rhodes, driver of the #88 Alpha Energy Solutions Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Lakes Region 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2015 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)

LOUDON, NH – JULY 17: Ben Rhodes, driver of the #88 Alpha Energy Solutions Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series Lakes Region 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17, 2015 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images)

With the talent he showed in the NKNPSE and the power of the JRM cars, Rhodes was expected to succeed quickly.

Instead, he struggled.

Rhodes earned only two top-10 finishes in the 10 starts and could not easily adjust to the new cars with his lack of consistent seat time.

Now competing full-time in the No. 41 Toyota for ThorSport Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Rhodes looks like he’s found his groove again. He ranks seventh in the series standings and leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year hunt after finishes of seventh and sixth in the first two races.

Rhodes will attempt to continue his early success in Saturday’s Alpha Energy Solutions 250 at Martinsville Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1)

“What (racing full-time) does for you mentally, I can’t even put it in words,” he said. “Especially when you’re able to contend for points, championship, rookie of the year, there’s just something, an unspoken nature that it does for you mentally and to just be able to have that bond with all of your guys. Not to say that I didn’t have that last year, but I wasn’t in the car full-time. That was the hardest thing for a learning driver – to not be in there.”

No stranger to Martinsville, Rhodes made his NASCAR national series debut at “The Paperclip” as a 17-year-old in March of 2014 and finished eighth.

“It is certainly wild at Martinsville Speedway,” Rhodes said. “The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 is going to be no different. All of the guys are going to be competing for the same piece of track position from the bottom to the front and it makes it really difficult.

“You just have to have fast truck, and try to stay out front and away from everyone else.”

Race Weekend Preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Race: STP 500

Place: Martinsville Speedway

Date and Time: Sunday, April 3 at 1 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 263 miles (500 laps)

What to Watch For: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards – all of whom have more than two short-track victories – go for their first win of the season at Martinsville. … Jimmie Johnson, the active wins leader at Martinsville with eight victories, attempts to capture his third checkered flag this year. … Denny Hamlin, last spring’s Martinsville race winner, tries to defend his victory. … The famed Wood Brothers Racing team returns to Martinsville for the first time since 2011. Ryan Blaney will take the wheel of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford for the organization’s 110th start at the .526-mile track. … Chase Elliott hopes to increase his five-point lead over Blaney in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Standings.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Race: Alpha Energy Solutions 250

Place: Martinsville Speedway

Date and Time: Saturday, April 2 at 2:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90

Distance: 131.5 miles (250 laps)

What To Watch For: Current standings runner-up Daniel Hemric  said, “We legitimately feel like there’s a range from 12-15 trucks, that depending on the race track, could win the race.” … Kyle Busch Motorsports, ThorSport Racing and GMS Racing each have four trucks entered in Saturday’s Alpha Energy Solutions 250. Some of their notables include 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, NSCS standout Kyle Larson and current NASCAR XFINITY Series standings leader Daniel Suárez … Sisters Paige and Claire Decker, along with their cousin Natalie Decker, are entered in Saturday’s race. Only one pair of sisters has competed in a NASCAR national series race – Amber and Angela Cope. … Kaz Grala, a standout for Ben Kennedy Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, makes his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut. … After visiting Victory Lane at Martinsville last fall, Matt Crafton tries to earn his second straight grandfather clock.

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