Top Dog: Todd Gilliland
Whether you attended the NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway in person or watched on TV, you got your early treats ahead of Halloween.
In addition to the famed hot dogs (trust me, they’re worth it), Martinsville provided plenty of fanfare in the penultimate race of the season.
Underneath the elation from Ryan Blaney locking a spot in the Championship 4 and the heartbreak that struck Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., Todd Gilliland landed a king-sized treat with a 10th-place finish.
Gilliland was one of many drivers who was able to work his way through the field from his 17th-place starting spot, a tall task with the lack of passing in recent Martinsville races.
However, with a new tire this weekend, Gilliland was one of the comers in the 168-lap green flag run to the finish.
Gilliland didn’t make much ground in stage one, finishing 18th in stage two. After improving to 13th in the second stage, crew chief Ryan Bergenty ordered a two-tire stop with 40 laps remaining in the stage, moving the No. 38 to fifth. Gilliland held his ground from there, finishing the stage in eigth.
The final stage was mostly a steady hand for Gilliland despite multiple strategies. After the team made another two-tire call later in the stage, the 23-year-old cracked the top 10, earning his first top 10 since Talladega Superspeedway in the spring.
Gilliland’s steady progress in his sophomore season continues to grow, as he has doubled his top 10 count from last year with four.
A lot can happen in 500 laps. When the yellow flag flew for the first time, it involved Harrison Burton, who also brought out the first caution for cause in the spring race. In this case, Burton locked horns with Alex Bowman on lap 104, as both drivers spun exiting turn 2.
That was just the beginning of a physical day for Burton, who appeared to be using the chrome horn or being on the receiving end nearly every time he came into camera view. However, each time, it seemed the No. 21 was higher up the leaderboard. After getting stuck a lap down earlier, Burton earned the free pass in the final stage. Despite losing a lap again in the late going, he clawed to 15th, beating out drivers such as Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott. It was Burton’s second top 15 at Martinsville in four starts.
It was a quiet day for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but it didn’t come without its challenges. With just over 25 laps left in stage one, Stenhouse was busted for speeding, a much heavier penalty at The Paperclip than most tracks. The No. 47 also had some brake issues late in the race, but Stenhouse held on.
On the final pit stop, Stenhouse received fuel only, propelling him inside the top 10. For the first half of the final green flag run, Stenhouse kept his bright orange Reese’s machine around the top 10. Unfortunately, his car “fell off a cliff” on older tires, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say, but he held on for 19th. It was his first top 20 in the previous five races.
Who’s in the Dog House
Both Erik Jones and Corey LaJoie fell just short of the impressive category. Jones overcame contact with Michael McDowell on lap 323 and some other early struggles to put himself in a solid position for the final run. The No. 43 stayed out under the final caution to restart in fourth, where Jones was able to guide his car for an extended stay. Unfortunately, needing another caution to help his strategy, Jones was short on fuel and had to pit with 20 laps remaining. He finished 21st.
LaJoie, who finished 22nd, also fell victim to that strategy after an uphill battle most of the day. LaJoie was impressive in Saturday’s practice session, topping the field in five-lap, 10-lap and 15-lap averages. However, he fell behind in qualifying by laying down a lap only good enough for 30th.
The Charlotte, N.C. native was caught up in the first crash with Burton and Bowman, tagging the wall and making contact with the No. 48, causing some slight damage to the nose. After staying out for the final run, LaJoie ran in second for several laps before beginning to fall victim to fresher tires. The stop for fuel threw a wrench in his day, leaving him outside the top 20.
Pileups were in season between both the Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series race this weekend, with the Cup’s version happening on lap 273 after Joey Logano turned Ty Gibbs. Involved in the crash were McDowell and J.J. Yeley, ending Yeley’s day.
It was just another gut punch for McDowell, who also had the spin mentioned above. As ugly as it got, McDowell managed to finish 25th, but it certainly was far from a smooth day.
‘Rocketman’ Ryan Newman‘s part-time tenure with Rick Ware Racing had a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ run at Martinsville. Newman got turned by Christopher Bell on lap 217, further denting a day full of struggles. The 45-year-old finished 29th, three laps down. However, he was fortunately OK after suffering from heat-related issues following the race in an abnormally hot October day in Virginia.
As Carson Hocevar gears up for a shot at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship next weekend, his Cup start at Martinsville was one to throw in the river. Hocevar struggled to find pace in his first start at The Paperclip, and he had a run-in with Gibbs on lap 303 that drew the ire of the NBC booth after Hocevar spun Gibbs. The 20-year-old finished 31st.
Underdog Thoughts of the Weekend
It was a mixed bag of results for the underdogs, with drivers such as Gilliland and Burton turning in solid performances while others like McDowell and Hocevar struggled. But after watching practice on Saturday and seeing LaJoie hold on inside the top five for most of the final run, Spire Motorsports’ vision of success is growing week by week. Just a couple of years ago, the No. 7 was a car that was getting lapped every time you looked up. Now, no matter if it is by speed or strategy, the team is beginning to make waves at multiple types of tracks.
With a trio of LaJoie, Hocevar and Zane Smith next season, the future grows brighter every race.
Small Team Scheme of the Race
We are breaking tradition this week! Instead of picking a Cup scheme of the race, we are going down to the Xfinity schemes for this edition. Martinsville and Halloween paint schemes are familiar, with schemes such as The Mystery Machine and Snoopy appearing on former Go Fas Racing cars. This time, several Xfinity schemes followed that up with their own versions.
As I was walking the grid prior to the Xfinity race, Josh Bilicki‘s No. 91 caught my eye with a bright teal color. Sponsored by Evolution Edges, the scheme mixed aliens and UFOs for a scheme that was certainly out of this world (credit to my Frontstretch colleague Trey Lyle for that tagline).
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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