The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series made its way to the famed Martinsville Speedway on Sunday for the first short track race of the season. Every time this series heads to a short track, fans and drivers expect loads of action, wrecks and crazy strategy. Sunday’s race had all of it, with several intense battles throughout the 500 laps.
The weekend started out quite dreary when qualifying was rained off on Friday and the field was set by owners’ points. Therefore, Kyle Larson led the field to the green alongside Chase Elliott on the front row. The green flag flew on a bright and sunny day in Martinsville and immediately we saw some action when several drivers made contact within the first 5 laps, including Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray.
Larson would lead the first 23 laps until Brad Keselowski took the lead on Lap 24. Larson would fall back through the field in the next 15 laps until he was eventually outside the top 10. The next 40 laps were quite uneventful until Ricky Stenhouse went for a spin and brought out the first caution. This would set up the first round of pit stops where Keselowski would retain the lead, but he was penalised for speeding on pit road and was sent to the rear, along with his Penske teammate Joey Logano for his crew being over the wall too soon, leaving both with a mountain to climb.
This allowed Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin to fight it out at the front for the rest of the Stage. However, Jamie McMurray, who was a solid top 10 car early on would cut a tyre and slam the wall on Lap 107, forcing him to retire. This triggered strategies when Hamlin and most others on the lead lap visited pit road. Truex, Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski, and Ty Dillon would all stay out to try and gain valuable stage points.
Another caution for a spin by Dale Earnhardt Jr. would force a 3-lap shootout at the end of the Stage. Truex would hold off a hard charging Hamlin and Kyle Busch to win Stage 1 with Keselowski and Chase Elliott rounding out the top 5. Larson, Ryan Blaney, Johnson, Austin Dillon, and Clint Bowyer would also pick up stage points.
Stage 2 began with various strategies yet again, and this time several drivers stayed out, including the eventual leader Kyle Busch, while many came in for 2 tyres, including Austin Dillon who would win the race off pit road. A hard battle for the lead between Busch and Elliott would continue for several laps until Busch began to pull away.
Much of Stage 2 was calm, but the action heated up near the end when Joey Logano had to make an unscheduled stop under green from 4th place for a flat tyre. On the final lap of the Stage, Ricky Stenhouse and several other drivers were battling hard to stay on the lead lap.
Stenhouse would lose a lap but then used his bumper to nudge Busch out of the way to get his lap back, at the same time, causing Busch to lose the lead and hand Stage 2 to Elliott. Keselowski, Johnson, Blaney, Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones, Trevor Bayne, and Kasey Kahne were the other stage points scorers.
In Stage 3 all hell broke loose. The action intensified, strategy became vitally important and everything began to look like a typical short track race. Elliott retained the lead at the start but Kyle Busch shortly took over the lead again before a debris caution on Lap 279.
The first big crash of the day came on Lap 290 when multiple drivers were spun around in Turn 1 including Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, and Daniel Suarez, Kyle Busch would continue to lead but with Dillon unable to continue.
With 100 to go, Keselowski passed Busch for the lead just after a restart. They would continue to swap places until the last big wreck of the day occurred with 82 to go when many drivers collided in Turn 3 including Earnhardt Jr., Bayne, Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick, Jones, and AJ Allmendinger. However, the only driver forced to retire was Earnhardt Jr., finishing in 34th.
The final restart of the day came with 64 to go. Busch and Keselowski enjoyed a terrific battle for the lead until Keselowski pulled clear. The rest of the race went caution free and Keselowski would go on to score his first win at Martinsville and his second win of 2017.
Kyle Busch finished 2nd despite leading the most laps, Chase Elliott came home 3rd, Joey Logano came back from an unscheduled stop to finish 4th and Austin Dillon recovered from an early race wreck to pick up his first top five of the season. Points leader Kyle Larson finished in 17th after reporting that his engine was blowing up in the closing laps. He still leads but the gap has been cut to only four over Elliott.
We saw an unbelievable race on Sunday with many lead changes and great racing throughout the field. This should be a sign of things to come with NASCAR heading to short tracks for two out of the next three weeks. Next week, the series heads to the newly repaved Texas Motor Speedway, and past experience tells us that the first race on a new surface is usually a ‘wreckfest’.