NASCAR at Martinsville preview: Denny Hamlin’s dominance, why Stewart-Haas Racing could pull an upset and more


NASCAR moves to Martinsville this week — and one lucky Cup Series driver will go home with a new clock. But who will it be? Despite Denny Hamlin’s short track dominance, there are a few drivers (and teams) who could sneak in a win. Plus, have Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin made up after that Richmond incident? We dive deeper in Rajah Caruth’s prep, and more! Join Jordan Bianchi and Jeff Gluck below for our preview of the Cook Out 400.

1. There’s both a spring and fall race at Martinsville. When looking at the recent winners, it’s all favorites: Byron, Larson, Bell, Blaney… Is there any reason to look at the fall and spring results separately? Or just “same track, expect the same group”?

Jeff: It’s mostly the same and I wouldn’t read too much into dividing the fall results versus the spring results. But the one division could be how the Next Gen track has performed at Martinsville, which is only the most recent four races. Who has been particularly exceptional during that time? The Team Penske Fords of Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano, both of whom have a 3.8 average finish, three top-fives and four top-10s. Blaney won the fall race last year to show himself as a formidable opponent entering the championship at Phoenix, where he then won. But on the other hand, Ford has yet to win a race at all this season and the Toyotas have won all the short/shorter track races so far (the Clash, Phoenix, Bristol, Richmond). So your decision this week may come down to whether you think the Fords will show up at Martinsville as they have been doing — or whether Toyota will continue rolling on the short tracks.

Jordan: Martinsville is historically a track where a select group of drivers tend to dominate for a period of time, regardless of whether it is the spring or fall race. And outside of the names already mentioned, it’s hard to see someone jumping up to emerge as a strong contender. But the one difference between Martinsville’s two races is that its fall date is not only in the playoffs, but the winner (if they’re still playoff-eligble) punches their ticket to the championship finale. Those stakes heighten the intensity of the fall race where desperate, championship hungry drivers are willing to do just about anything to win.

2. Who do you like to win this week at Martinsville? (Note: Odds are listed below this Q&A)

Jeff: Denny Hamlin is the heavy favorite (+350), and probably with good reason. He’s gone 3-for-3 on the short tracks so far this season, has led by far the most laps at the last three Martinsville races (395, which is 245 more than Christopher Bell, the next-closest driver) and has three straight top-fives there (fifth, fourth and third, respectively). Hamlin is also the winningest active Martinsville driver with five victories. That said, doesn’t Hamlin seem too obvious? I’m going to make it slightly more interesting and go with Christopher Bell (+900), although I don’t really have a compelling reason why aside from Bell’s 2022 victory there.

Jordan: Considering Hamlin is undefeated on short tracks this season, with wins at the L.A. Coliseum, Bristol and Richmond, and usually stellar at Martinsville, he should be the favorite. Martin Truex Jr. (+750) is another driver who should do contend Sunday, as he’s a three-time winner there.

3. Ty Gibbs holds the record for Martinsville Xfinity qualifying (19.278 seconds) and won in 2022. Last year you mentioned Josh Berry would be great here — but he missed the race by two weeks as an injury replacement for Alex Bowman. Despite the recent string of favorites, is there still room for a long-shot winner? 

Jeff: Definitely, and that could come out of the Stewart-Haas Racing camp. Last year, Ryan Preece (50/1 for Sunday) led the opening 135 laps until a speeding penalty ruined his chances. But it’s not all that far-fetched to think Berry or Chase Briscoe (both +2500) could put it all together for a solid day. And if a driver has track position late in the race, anything could happen. Briscoe, in particular, has four straight top-10s at Martinsville, including top-fives in both races last season.

Jordan: SHR could absolutely play the role of Cinderella, with any one of its four drivers being a viable dark horse candidate. Berry is especially a good “sleeper.” He has a lot of laps here and knows this place as well as anyone, plus he comes in having impressed in the previous two short track races – finishing 12th at Bristol and 11th at Richmond.

4. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. had a run-in at Richmond — which would be fine, except they’re teammates. Does something like that linger? Does someone broker peace during the week? Who was wrong in this instance?

Jeff: On Hamlin’s “Actions Detrimental” podcast this week, he said the longtime teammates had already hashed it out by Monday. Truex pretty much lost his mind over having the race slip away in a matter of moments and took out his anger on both Hamlin and Kyle Larson (who was similarly forgiving of Truex’s highly unusual outburst). Chalk this one up to a moment of frustration from a veteran driver who doesn’t have all that many chances to win remaining in his career, which is why seeing a sure victory disappear had to be incredibly aggravating.

Jordan: This is a total non-issue. Rarely does Truex let his emotions get the best of him, so considering how Richmond played out and that Truex is one of the most respected drivers in the garage, it’s not surprising that Hamlin and Larson are holding no grudge and everyone has moved on.

5. You lobbied for Richmond to drop a race in the future. But what if … you covered Richmond in dirt for one of them? (Or could they retool it like Atlanta did?)

Jeff: I’m just personally out on covering existing tracks in dirt. It feels like a Band-Aid or a gimmick. If they want to do another dirt race, they should go to a real dirt track. And if they want to keep two Richmond races, NASCAR should demand Goodyear do something radical with the tire (we saw how entertaining the track could be when the wet-weather tires were used in the first 30 laps on Sunday). Other than that, there isn’t much you could do to Richmond configuration-wise with any guarantees it would produce a better race, and it doesn’t seem to have the fan support for two races anyway — so why not just go somewhere else?

Jordan: If NASCAR wants a dirt track on its schedule then it should add a race at Eldora Speedway. The Ohio dirt track owned by Tony Stewart has proven it can successfully host a NASCAR national series race, which would likely mitigate some of the issues brought about by covering Bristol in dirt. As for Richmond, it feels like barring something drastic or a last-minute change of mind by NASCAR’s decision makers, the odds of it having two races in 2025 is increasingly slim.

NOOB question of the week: Jordan’s piece on Rajah Caruth was fantastic. One thing that stood out was how many drivers marveled at him taking notes and watching film. Is that not common in NASCAR? You see it all the time in MLB, NFL, etc. — coaches playing film, players taking notes, etc.

Jeff: It’s very common for them to watch film but Caruth seems exceptional at gathering feedback from every corner of the garage. He goes to the spotter’s stand to watch races from that vantage point, isn’t afraid to ask veteran drivers for their track tips and generally puts in the extra effort to get better. That’s where the note-taking comes into play because you’d be surprised how many young drivers don’t ask the veterans (even teammates) for tips.

Jordan: Thank you for the kind words about the story. I was proud of how that turned out. As Jeff noted, Caruth’s work ethic is exceptional, often going above and beyond in trying to find ways to improve his craft. And that level of dedication has turned many heads while also factoring significantly in him improving his results this season.

NASCAR at Martinsville odds (via BetMGM.)

(Top photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images; Meg Oliphant/Getty Images; onathan Bachman/Getty Images)

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