Martin Truex Jr. put the Martin in Martinsville.
In one of the most anticipated races when the 2020 calendar was scheduled, the NASCAR Cup Series visited Martinsville Speedway for Wednesday night short track racing. The first nighttime Cup race in Martinsville’s history, Truex overcame an early penalty to dominate the final stage en route to his first victory of the season.
Ryan Blaney drew the pole for the race, while Aric Almirola started second for the third consecutive event. Joey Gase failed inspection a whopping five times, leading to being sent to the rear, receiving an L1-level penalty, and serving a pass-through penalty.
Almirola quickly took the lead, while a caution quickly came out when Austin Dillon‘s right-rear tyre went down on lap five. Gase fell a lap down due to his penalty, which he regained via free pass on the caution; however, he lost a battery during the yellow.
The next restart took place on lap 13 as Almirola held his lead. After restarting second, Blaney began sinking, dropping out of the top five after six laps. Almirola also suffered the same fate when Logano took the lead on lap 21 before being swallowed by Truex, the Busch brothers Kurt and Kyle, and Chase Elliott. By lap 40, the two had fallen out of the top fifteen.
Other notable early struggles included five-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin, who was lapped after 45 laps and notably lost a battle to Corey LaJoie (whom he had traded barbs with on Twitter after Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway), Garrett Smithley, who reported to pit road with a brake failure, and Kyle Busch, who was lapped with five laps before the competition caution. Blaney would also be put a lap down, prompting him to give his Team Penske ally the middle finger.
By said yellow on lap 60, all but seventeen drivers had been lapped by Logano. Notable strong runs up to the point were Michael McDowell in seventh and Bubba Wallace in eleventh; the latter was running a special Black Lives Matter paint scheme in solidarity with the ongoing protests. Much of the surprises in the running order can be attributed to a lack of practice due to the COVID-19-created condensed schedule, forcing drivers to fight their way around the short track without preparation.
On Twitter, Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe posted, “I love this no practice stuff, it’s fun to see who hits it right and who misses it. The start of this race has been crazy.”
Logano was the first off pit road ahead of Elliott as the race resumed on lap 69. After 15 laps, Wallace entered the top ten.
The second race-related caution came out on lap 113 when Timmy Hill‘s car stalled in the pits; the pole sitter Blaney returned to the lead lap after receiving the free pass. On pit road, Wallace took two tyres to be the first out, while Logano was the first to exit after changing four.
LaJoie stayed out to inherit the lead for the restart on lap 121. An aggressive move by Clint Bowyer pushed him and Logano to the front.
Logano and Bowyer led the field to the stage victory, followed by Jimmie Johnson and Truex. Wallace’s two-tyre gamble still resulted in a top five, with Elliott, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt DiBenedetto, and William Byron tailing. LaJoie finished the stage in seventeenth.
Truex suffered a commitment line violation and started Stage #2 at the rear, while Logano and Bowyer remained in front.
Johnson took second from Bowyer on lap 168. As Bowyer sank, Blaney rebounded, reaching the top five by lap 195. Johnson would clear Logano for the lead on lap 202; it was the seven-time champion and nine-time Martinsville winner’s first laps led at the track since the 2017 fall race.
Meanwhile, the Toyota camp’s woes persisted throughout the stage as Truex became the manufacturer’s only driver on the lead lap and the last unlapped car on the field by the green-checkered flag. As Johnson took his first stage win of 2020, LaJoie attempted a move on DiBenedetto to become the first car a lap down and get the free pass, but failed.
Blaney, Logano, Bowman, Harvick, Wallace, Byron, Elliott, Busch, and Tyler Reddick also received stage points.
Between stages, Byron was penalised for an uncontrolled tyre.
Johnson and Blaney held the top two as the final stage opened on lap 272. After a brief battle, Blaney cleared him for first two laps later with Logano following suit. The duo of Penske drivers traded positions on lap 284 as Logano gave Blaney a bump.
Behind them, Johnson slipped to fifth as Harvick and Elliott passed him. Blaney retook the lead on lap 307, while Brad Keselowski joined his Penske team-mates in the top three.
David Starr, running his first Cup race in 2018, was later turned by Erik Jones in turn three to bring out the caution. In the pits, Blaney suffered a slow stop when a tyre changer lost his air gun, followed by a penalty for having a crewman over the wall too soon. Logano was the first out.
The race resumed on lap 333 with Logano and Keselowski in front. By lap 360, the two began encountering lapped traffic, which Truex and Elliott capitalised on to close the gap.
Keselowski claimed the lead on lap 366 with Truex following. Five laps later, Truex took first.
On lap 397, Quin Houff spun for the seventh yellow flag of the night. During the caution, Dillon went to the garage and had to be extracted from his car as his right-rear crush panel was damaged, leading to heat and carbon monoxide inhalation. Although A.J. Allmendinger was reportedly on standby as a relief driver in the event that Dillon’s wife went into labour, it is likely Richard Childress Racing elected not to subject Allmendinger to a similar situation. The incident marked the second consecutive race in which a driver required medical attention for heat-related issues after Wallace fainted following Sunday’s Atlanta race.
In a post-race interview, Truex also noted “this car felt a lot hotter than I expected to.”
A strong restart kept Truex in front as Logano and his Penske partners followed. By the 50-to-go mark, Truex’s lead had ballooned to over three seconds. The three Penske members exchanged their spots, with Blaney eventually passing Keselowski for second.
As the race entered its final laps, Almirola exited with battery issues.
Truex, whose last win came in the fall Martinsville race in 2019, completed his final stage domination as he scored his first win of the season. It is also the first victory for crew chief James Smalls.