Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Hendrick’s Big Day at Martinsville

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Last fall, William Byron came to Martinsville Speedway on a roll, with six straight finishes of ninth or better. But the little track in Virginia got the best of Byron. It didn’t completely derail his title hopes by any stretch of the imagination, but a 13th-place run took a little wind out of his sails. Ryan Blaney won the day and entered the title race with enough momentum to win it all, while Byron rode his top-five run to third on the year.

See also
William Byron Victorious in Overtime, Wins in Martinsville

This time around, Martinsville didn’t get the better of Byron. He started 13th but was in the top 10 by the end of stage one. The Daytona 500 winner went on to lead 88 laps en route to the victory over teammate Kyle Larson. It comes 40 years after team owner Rick Hendrick’s first Cup Series win as a car owner.

All four Hendrick cars had ruby red paint schemes to mark the milestone, and they didn’t disappoint Hendrick, with the quartet all finishing in the top 10. Chase Elliott led 64 laps and finished third, marking the first one-two-three finish for an organization in Martinsville history. Alex Bowman came home eighth, keeping all the Hendrick cars in the top 10.

And don’t forget Ryan Preece. Preece took home his first top 10 of 2024 and his first at Martinsville in the Cup Series. The short track ace has two grandfather clocks from Martinsville wins with the Whelen Modified Tour, but the track had gotten the best of him in Cup until Sunday. Preece entered the day feeling confident in his No. 41 car, and his confidence was justified after he came in ninth.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Martinsville put on some of the best racing on the Cup circuit not so long ago. It still does when the Xfinity Series shows up. But since the Cup Series adopted the Next Gen racecar, it’s been just OK at best. 

Will NASCAR do anything to help?

The tires helped the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway exponentially, though it wasn’t perfect. A tire that lasts roughly 50-60 laps before giving up the ghost seems like it would be ideal on the Martinsville paperclip.

But if there are plans to develop this kind of tire for Martinsville and other tracks, they haven’t been released.

More horsepower seems to be off the table (with no good reason ever given). Is there another way to get back to the kind of racing the fans deserve, the better to keep the track’s two dates secure? Horsepower is easy to add; other, bigger changes to the body of the cars is a bigger question.

A dedicated short-track car that can race Martinsville and other short tracks more like the Xfinity cars is a much more expensive option — the very opposite of what NASCAR wanted to achieve with the Next Gen cars.

So what gives? Something has to.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Larson dominated early, going wire-to-wire in the first stage, but after that, he couldn’t quite keep up with his teammates. Thanks to the overtime restart, Larson was able to squeeze by Elliott in the final laps for second.

Last fall’s Martinsville winner Blaney was in the best position to break up the Hendrick party on the final restart. But he hadn’t been a frontrunner all day long. He qualified ninth and ran in the upper half of the field all day. But as the race progressed, Blaney’s car got better and he moved into the top 10, and then top five for the final restart after a few competitors gambled on fresh tires.

Active Martinsville win leader Denny Hamlin had the best car early and led laps, but after the final pit cycle he couldn’t quite run with the Hendrick trio. He instead lurked in the top five, hoping for a caution to close things up. When it flew with just four laps to go, forcing overtime, Hamlin came to pit road for tires, but he didn’t draw enough others along with him to put him in the top five for the restart. Hamlin restarted in 10th, and despite fresher tires, didn’t gain ground in the overtime run, slipping to 11th at the finish.

When… was the moment of truth?

If it wasn’t evident from the moment they rolled off the truck on Saturday, it became clear in qualifying that the Hendrick Chevrolets would be fast. Byron actually qualified the worst of the stable in 13th, with all of his teammates in the top 10 and Larson taking the pole.

See also
Hendrick Motorsports Celebrates 40th Anniversary With Historic 1-2-3 Finish

Larson dominated the first stage, leading every lap. Hamlin came to play in the middle, winning the second stage, but the Hendrick bunch had a little too much for him on the day.  

The spotlight was on Hendrick because of the team’s milestone, but there are times when one team shows up a little better than the competition. Last week at Richmond Raceway, it was the Joe Gibbs Racing camp. Next week at Texas Motor Speedway could be someone else. Some races are won on strategy, others on luck, and some because the team got it right from day one. This was the latter.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

Next weekend, the Cup Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for its lone 2024 event, which marks the quarter-point of the season. We’re only a few weeks from the halfway mark of the regular season as well.

For a few teams, it might be time to at least keep one hand on the panic button. Two-time champion Joey Logano has struggled in 2024, with Martinsville just his third top-10 run of the year — though he has been climbing the standings in the last few weeks and is up to 14th. His Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric has joined Logano on the struggle bus, though teammate Blaney has had better luck in his title defense.

Ford, in general, has been a step or two behind, with only Blaney inside the top 10 in driver points. Stewart-Haas Racing has just one of its Fords inside the top 20, with Chase Briscoe sitting 16th.

Richard Childress Racing has also had trouble keeping up. Kyle Busch is 15th in points with just one top five, and Austin Dillon sits a distant 31st. Other 2023 playoff contenders with work to do this year include Michael McDowell, who has had some terrible luck to kick off the season, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., last year’s Daytona 500 winner, who has just one top 10 so far.

How… big an accomplishment is 40 years in the Cup Series?

While the broadcast focused on the Hendrick anniversary more than it needed to, it’s a big deal in that not many teams have shown that kind of longevity. Rick Hendrick joins Wood Brothers Racing, Petty Enterprises and Richard Childress in four decades in NASCAR’s top series. Junie Donlavey and Roger Penske have more than 40 total seasons in Cup, but not consecutively.

Breaking into the Cup Series is hard. Sticking around is even harder. So in that context, it’s a big deal, especially considering that Rick Hendrick’s team wouldn’t be around if it hadn’t won at Martinsville in its first season. The other 39 would not have happened without it. The race was a last-ditch effort for the team to survive; Hendrick planned to shutter his race shop after that race until Geoff Bodine took the win that started it all.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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6 Comments
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Joe M.

The check to NASCAR cleared. Result: 1, 2, 3 HMS finish

Kevin in SoCal

Last week it was Gibbs. I wish they’d make up their mind.

DoninAjax

Next week its Gibbs! Then Mr.H. Musical owners. NA$CAR doesn’t have to decide with the money rolling in.

Joe M.

Geez, I didn’t know there was a 1, 2, 3 JGR finish at Richmond… thanks

Joshua

The comments below are obviously from the ill-informed. The cars are primarily assembled. It would pay to realize that having intelligent engineers on the big teams is what does it. Nothing about NASCAR is rigged. If you think that, please stop watching and go join the F-1 bandwagon for more of Verstappen’s 15 second wins.

Mike Stevenson

Hey Guys, Martinsville should clearly show that Bubba Wallace should not be racing in the cup series. Even when they give him a car that is capable of winning he just can’t get the job done.
Mike T.

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