Chase Elliott returns for high-intensity racing at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 30: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Direct Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Martinsville is famous for aggressive driving and bold moves, even before Ross Chastain’s wall ride last year caught the headlines. Sunday’s NOCO 400 (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the final race in the sport’s short-track swing, and it’s the one with the most history of contact and aggression.

And NASCAR drivers are already complaining about overaggressive driving, considering how hard it is to damage the new Next Gen cars.

“The cars are about indestructible at this point,” Alex Bowman said ahead of the race at Richmond that started the sport’s short track stretch. We hit each other so hard all the time; it’s kind of crazy how hard we run into each other.”

And with a famous grandfather clock trophy on the line, Chase Briscoe says that aggression levels will be even higher than usual.

“It’s a long race,” he said, “tempers get heated and, if you end up using everything up, you’re going to get run over or moved out of the way.”

The most famous Martinsville moment of late has to be Ross Chastain’s ‘Hail Melon’ wall ride, but don’t expect anything like that again. NASCAR made sure to expand its rulebook this year with a catch-all rule that virtually eliminates the possibility. Chastain is okay with that, though.

“What’s really cool about it now, and what I’m most proud of is it’s never going to happen again,” he said. “If it does happen in NASCAR, they’ll get penalized so that will probably deter people from doing it again. I didn’t realize it at the time how historical it was but it’s neat now to look back on it and think about how it’s a moment NASCAR’s history.”

Overshadowed by Chastain’s move last time the series visited Martinsville was Christopher Bell’s win, and the driver has all the momentum on his side.

Not only is Bell the most recent winner at the track, but he’s the most recent winner in the series after taking the win at Bristol Dirt, and he leads the championship standings.

A bigger story than all of that, though, is Chase Elliott’s headline announcement that he’ll be returning behind the wheel of the no. 9 car after recovering from a snowboarding accident. He was granted a waiver by NASCAR to remain eligible for the Playoffs.

Elliott is the winner of the Fall Martinsville race, and despite his injury, he expects to be competitive.

“Our team is really talented and we have a great group,” he said. “I think if we have our ducks in a row and we’re prepared, I think we can go and jump in and have a really solid run. That’s obviously my goal. We’ll just have to get up there and see what the challenges are and what they bring.”

Of note, up in front of the field as pace car will be the all-new Mustang GT, redesigned for 2024.

Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, said that. “Racing leads to better products, and seeing the all-new Mustang GT setting the pace at NASCAR make this connection even stronger with our customers and fans.”

Finally, Zane Smith will be driving the no. 51 car for Rick Ware Racing following Cody Ware’s arrest and indefinite suspension from NASCAR, which was announced this week after Ware was also out of the car at Bristol Dirt for a ‘personal matter.’

The team’s statement read, in part, “We understand NASCAR’s position on this matter and accept their decision. The matter is still under investigation and Cody is fully cooperating with the authorities, as due process takes its course.”

Practice for the NOCO 400 is Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 5:20 – both will be televised on FS2.

Defending Martinsville winner Brandon Jones hopes the short track can turn his 2023 season around

JR Motorsports driver Brandon Jones arrives in Martinsville this week as the defending winner of Saturday night’s BeforeYouDig 250 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and those victory vibes just might be enough to help the perpetual race favorite get back on track in 2023.

Through the opening seven races Jones has yet to score a top-10 since moving to the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for the 2023 season. But it certainly isn’t for a lack of trying. His best showing is 11th on the Austin, Texas road course. He did lead a season-high 24 laps at Richmond two weeks ago and he’s got a promising history with the Martinsville half-miler scoring top-10s in four of his five starts and leading laps in three of those.

It’ll be a challenge, though, as Cole Custer noted that the rest of the field is willing to be aggressive to score the win and take home the famous trophy.

“Martinsville is a place where tempers can flare,” Custer said, “and you have to be ready for that. Sometimes you just have to get going, so either you have to move people out of the way if they’re holding you up, or you get moved. It’s a place where, as the laps start winding down, you’re going to get aggression from the drivers.”

Jones and his JR Motorsports teammate Josh Berry are the only fulltime Xfinity Series drivers entered this weekend that have won at Martinsville since the series started racing there again in 2020 after a 14-year absence from the facility. Berry, who is ranked fifth in the championship won at Martinsville in 2021 and the driver of the No. 8 JRM Chevy brings a solid five Top-10s on the season into the race weekend.

Another solid storyline to follow is Riley Herbst’s quest for his first career Xfinity Series victory. The Las Vegas native has six top-10 finishes in the opening seven races of 2023 – joining points leader Austin Hill and John Hunter Nemechek as tops in that category. Herbst is second to Hill in the championship by a mere 12 points – his highest career position in the standings. And at Martinsville, the driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has four top-10s in five starts and is coming off a career best third place last Fall.

Hill, a three-race winner in the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, finished fourth and ninth last season – his only two NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Martinsville. His best showing in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series at the track is runner-up in 2021. The Georgia native certainly has been strong this season – the only driver to lead the championship to date.

This is a big weekend for incentive money. JRM’s Justin Allgaier collected a cool Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus check with his 13th-place effort two weeks ago at Richmond Raceway – and as a result, is eligible again this week for the second round of the popular Dash 4 Cash incentive from Xfinity.

His JR Motorsports teammate Josh Berry, Kaulig Racing’s Chandler Smith and Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek are the four eligible competitors this Saturday. The highest finisher among them earns the big check. The top four eligible finishers from this weekend’s race will have a chance to race for another $100,000 at Talladega, Ala. next week.

A 35-minute Martinsville practice is set for Friday at 5 p.m. ET with qualifying immediately following. Interestingly, only six times has the pole-winner also won the race. The last to do so was Jimmy Hensley in 1987.

Truck Series goes from the dirt to the ‘paperclip’

After a dramatic dirt race last weekend at Bristol, a test of more traditional short track racing comes to the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Friday night in the Long John Silver’s 200 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

And for the second straight week, short track ace Ty Majeski continues to lead the championship standings – by 34 points over defending series champ and two-time season race winner Zane Smith. An impressive runner-up showing last week at Bristol was the fourth top five in the season’s opening six races for Majeski, the driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford.

There are four former Martinsville truck race winners in the field this weekend – including Smith, Grant Enfinger and two-time winners Matt Crafton and Kyle Busch. There have been nine different winners in the last nine Martinsville races – tying a streak with the Phoenix and Bristol, Tenn. tracks.

Last Spring, NASCAR Cup Series regular William Byron took a healthy 1.138-second victory over Truck Series veteran Johnny Sauter at Martinsville. Ben Rhodes (fifth place) was the only current series full-timer to finish among the top-five.

Rhodes, the 2021 series champion and driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford, is especially good at Martinsville. He is currently third in the championship, trailing his teammate Majeski by 47 points after an impressive start to the schedule. Although Rhodes is still racing for his first win of 2023, he has top-10 finishes in four of the last five races. He has finished seventh or better in five of the last six Martinsville races, including two runner-up showings in 2019 and 2020.

Zane Smith, driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, won at Martinsville in 2021 and undoubtedly would like to have this weekend steer an inconsistent season forward. He has wins at the Daytona season-opener and again at the Austin, Texas road course but only three top-10s in the opening six races. He’s a perfect 3-for-3 in top-10s at Martinsville with a third place and ninth place (last year) in addition to his victory. And he’s led 140 laps; most among the championship leaders in that last three-race span.

Smith will have some extra track time on the weekend. He has been tabbed to drive the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

Of the championship leaders, Crafton could well be a favorite to notch his first series win since 2020. The driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford won at the Martinsville “paperclip” in 2014 and ’15. And he has 23 top-10 finishes in 39 starts there – an impressive 59 percent of his total races at Martinsville. He’s coming off a fourth place run at Bristol last week.

It’s worth noting that this season’s top rookie Nick Sanchez leads the series in laps led – and he’s led more than three times that of any other fulltime driver. He has a pair of top-10 finishes – including a runner-up at Atlanta – and is ranked eighth in the championship. This will be his Truck Series debut at Martinsville.

A 35-minute practice is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. Friday afternoon, followed immediately by qualifying.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 29: JJ Yeley, driver of the #66 CW & Sons Infrastructure Toyota, spins into the wall after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Dead On Tools 250 at Martinsville Speedway on October 29, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: NOCO 400
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Sunday, April 16
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,324,203
TV: FS1, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 210.4 miles (400 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 180), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Before You Dig. 250
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Saturday, April 15
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,403,623
TV: FS1, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 131.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)

Next Race: Long John Silver’s 200
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Friday, April 14
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $693,842
TV: FS1, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 105.2 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 50),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 100), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Owen Johnson