Just when you thought you had a grip on who was running well, Friday at Martinsville Speedway happens and changes your outlook. Joe Gibbs Racing entered the weekend with confidence, having a strong showing in the series’ first short-track race of the season at Richmond Raceway. This weekend, three of its four drivers will start the 400-lap event outside the top 10.
RELATED: Weekend schedule | Starting lineup | Photos from ‘The Paperclip’
Dustin Albino’s race-day lineup:
Starter 1: Chase Elliott
Starter 2: William Byron
Starter 3: Denny Hamlin
Starter 4: Brad Keselowski
Starter 5: Aric Almirola
Garage pick: Christopher Bell
NEXT IN LINE: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick
RELATED: Will JGR keep momentum going? | Set your lineups now
RISING: In 14 career races at Martinsville, Kyle Larson has just three top-10 finishes. However, joining Hendrick Motorsports last season elevated Larson’s performance at the half-mile track. Though the reigning champion doesn’t make my starting lineup, he had a strong practice and qualifying showing and will start eighth.
Ever since Chase Elliott’s run-in with Denny Hamlin in the fall 2017 race at Martinsville, Elliott has been a factor at the track. In 2020, he dominated the penultimate race of the year, leading 236 laps. Last fall, the No. 9 Chevrolet got dumped late in the race, relegating him to a 16th-place result. Before that, he paced the field for 289 laps. Elliott was first in practice and qualifying, so he should be a fantasy lock this weekend.
For the first time this season, Chris Buescher made the final round of qualifying. In fact, both RFK Racing Fords were among the fast 10. And though it’s not Buescher’s best starting position of his Cup career, it’s the best when there has been qualifying. RFK could use a real shot in the arm, and he has Brad Keselowski as a teammate, who has 12 top-10 finishes in the last 14 Martinsville races.
FALLING: As you can see, Martin Truex Jr. has dropped from my lineup. Listening to him speak about his car after his qualifying run is worrisome. But based off recent success at Martinsville, the No. 19 Toyota will probably be battling for the win come Lap 400, having seven top-five results in the past nine Martinsville races. It’s a tossup, but totally understandable if you use him.
Bubba Wallace was third in practice on Friday but ran just the 21st-best time in qualifying. Martinsville is among Wallace’s best tracks on the circuit, and the No. 23 team desperately needs a good finish this weekend, having four finishes below 20th in the past five races. I just think there’s more methodical picks this weekend, such as Aric Almirola, who has been steady at the half-mile venue since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018.
Chase Elliott vs. Denny Hamlin:
Prior to Friday, Hamlin would get the slight advantage, despite both drivers being exceptional at Martinsville. With Elliott winning the pole and Hamlin having to come from 25th, the pick here is Elliott. Plus, Elliott was P1 in practice.
Ryan Blaney vs. Ross Chastain:
Historically, Martinsville is one of Blaney’s best tracks on the circuit. Don’t expect that to change this weekend, as the No. 12 Ford has been among the quickest cars in every race this season. Plus, Chastain will have to come from 27th. Take Blaney’s average finish of 10.8 across 12 starts to the bank, though all Team Penske cars missed the final round of qualifying.
William Byron vs. Martin Truex Jr.:
This one is tough. Entering the weekend, Truex has turned Martinsville into his own personal playground, winning three of the past five races on “The Paperclip.” But after qualifying 20th and turning the 21st quickest lap in practice, Truex said he doesn’t have the feel he’d hoped for entering the weekend. With Byron getting additional laps and winning Thursday’s Truck Series race, the edge goes to the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Kyle Busch vs. Kyle Larson:
These JGR-HMS matchups are fun, aren’t they? Over the past 19 trips to southern Virginia, one of these two organizations have won 14 times. While Larson had a strong Friday, Busch’s race craft suits him better on the half-mile layout. Indecisively, Busch should finish better than the No. 5 car, though Larson has gotten better at Martinsville of late.
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