NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville

What happened?

Martin Truex Jr. won the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville on Sunday (April 11) after a late pass for the win over a dominant Denny Hamlin.

Chase Elliott, Hamlin, William Byron and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five finishers.

How did it happen?

Saturday night’s race began just over an hour later than scheduled due to rain and it didn’t go too far. Polesitter Joey Logano led the first four laps before Hamlin got around him and led until lap 37, when James Davison was turned by Cody Ware. Hamlin retained the lead through pit stops and then the rain hit again, postponing the remaining 458 laps to Sunday afternoon.

On the restart just after 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, Hamlin held the lead over Blaney, Elliott and Logano. Just four laps after the restart, Kurt Busch spun following contact with Erik Jones.

Hamlin retained the top spot after the restart until Blaney took over on lap 76. The No. 12 led through the end of the first stage, which remained caution-free until its conclusion on lap 130.

Hamlin reclaimed the lead from Blaney on the un-preferred outside groove on the stage 2 restart. The strength of his car showed on the short run, as he led for 45 laps until Blaney again got back out front.

With 20 laps left in the second stage, Ware brought out the yellow flag again. The leaders pitted under caution and set up a 15-lap duel to the finish. Blaney led for six laps before another caution, this time involving Ryan Newman and Matt DiBenedetto. On the two-lap dash to conclude the stage, Blaney barely held off Hamlin for his third stage win of the season (tied with Hamlin and Kyle Larson for the most).

After relatively caution-free runs in the first two stages, stage 3 struggled to stay green. Ten cars stayed out under the stage break, with Hamlin leading the field. Ensuing cautions for single-car spins came on laps 277 (Justin Haley), 290 (Ware), 322 (Kyle Busch), 331 (Anthony Alfredo), 341 (Brad Keselowski), 350 (Ryan Newman) and 372 (Erik Jones).

Hamlin retained control through most of this portion of the race, with Byron (nine laps) and Bubba Wallace (23 laps) both leading for a bit. Christopher Bell took over the lead after Jones’ spin before Hamlin got back by him. Then, the big one hit (yes, at Martinsville).

Eleven cars were officially involved, including Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece, Alex Bowman, Michael McDowell, Keselowski and Haley, all of whom were out due to the crash damage.

Following a lengthy red flag for cleanup, the race went green with 104 laps to go. Blaney got back to the front and battled Hamlin for the lead but couldn’t get by him. With 49 laps to go, Chase Briscoe spun and brought out the 15th and final caution. On the pit stops, Blaney was penalized for removing equipment from his box after running over the air hose.

Truex took the lead on pit road, though Hamlin and his short-run speed got to the point on the restart. Truex stayed within half a second for the next 25 laps, with Elliott one second back in third. After multiple attempts at passing his teammate, Truex finally overtook Hamlin with 15 laps left.

Truex stayed out front and won the race for his second victory of 2021, the 29th of his career and third at Martinsville.

Who stood out?

Truex came out of nowhere in the final laps to claim another huge victory. He ran in the top five for most of the race. The shocking part was that he never really showed the type of speed to battle Hamlin or Blaney out front earlier on. After a dazzling pit stop by his crew, he utilized his track position for the victory.

The win was Truex’s third at Martinsville as he continues to etch his legacy. He now has 29 career victories and looks like a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Many thought his time as a contender ended when Cole Pearn unexpectedly retired, but he’s proving that’s not the case. He certainly isn’t the same dominant driver he was with Pearn, but he clearly is still a race- and championship-winning threat.

Hamlin continues to knock off solid finish after solid finish to start the season. Martinsville marked his seventh top five in eight races this season. His only other finish was 11th. The problem with Hamlin this season has been sealing the deal. He’s led at least 25 laps five times this year, culminating in a season-best 276 at Martinsville. Again, though, it was the victory that eluded him.

There’s really no cause for concern with the No. 11 at this point. The team has scored 76 more points than anyone else. As we saw last year, though, good finishes can only get you so far. Kevin Harvick didn’t make it to Phoenix in 2020 because he couldn’t win in the final elimination round. Hamlin has a long way to go to figure it out, and it’s probably good that they’re getting these almost-victories out of the way early.

Elliott was quiet for most of Sunday’s race and still ended up in the mix when it mattered most. That’s the mark of a championship team, and it’s something the No. 9 has been missing in the early stages of 2021. Martinsville gave Elliott his third top five and fourth top 10 of the season, and he currently sits seventh in points.

With five more road courses on tap in the final 18 regular-season events, Elliott should have no problem finding victory lane. Like Hamlin, Elliott will be in the thick of a championship battle this fall. Performances like Sunday’s are a great stepping stone for a team that seems to have Martinsville figured out.

Who fell flat?

Blaney had the best long-run car all afternoon and again was plagued by tough luck at Martinsville. Finishing 11th is fine – it’s actually right in line with his 10.7 career average finish at the track – but you can’t help but wonder why Blaney doesn’t have two or three grandfather clocks. He’s led at least 30 laps four times, has five top-five finishes and completed a remarkable 5501 of 5505 possible laps at the track. Blaney led 157 laps Sunday.

We talked a few weeks ago after Atlanta about how he might finally be figuring out how to consistently win races. His performance and poor luck at Martinsville doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t go win three or more races in 2021 – it’s just a bad sign. 

Keselowski talked before the race about how great these upcoming tracks lined up for him. Well, he didn’t get off to a good start at Martinsville. The No. 2 had solid speed in the early going, driving up to sixth. He got mired back in some traffic later, then fell victim to accidents and finished 33rd. Keselowski still has some historically great tracks coming up for him (Richmond, Talladega, Kansas), so let’s reevaluate how he looks after this trio of events.

What did this race prove?

More short tracks, please. The statement rings true every time we get a great short-track race. The action is unmatched. The finishes are often fantastic. There’s not much you can hate about good, old-fashioned short-track battles – and that’s what we got in the final stages at Martinsville.

Tracks like Martinsville and Bristol are special to NASCAR because of their history and great racing. Adding the Auto Club short track will be a nice move, though it might be time to expand that even further.

As great at short tracks are, there is one thing NASCAR needs to change: Stop rushing to throw caution flags for single-car spins when there’s no dangerous debris. In the early part of the final stage, the race got into this lull period where every 10 laps there was a caution because someone got turned deep in the field.

I know it’s a short track and there’s going to be spinners in the back, I just wish NASCAR wasn’t so quick to throw a yellow. Give the driver a chance to drive it away and if there’s no debris, let’s keep things moving. The flow of the race was completely changed during that sequence today, and fans missed out on valuable, entertaining green flag battles.

Paint scheme of the race

I absolutely love when teams run special schemes for night races as opposed to their usual primary. Carl Edwards’ silver Aflac car, Kyle Larson’s white Target car and Mark Martin’s white Viagra car immediately come to mind. Message to all race teams: bring back inverse schemes for night races.

Wallace’s inverse DoorDash scheme wins paint scheme of the race this week, even though we didn’t get to see it under the lights for too long:

Better than last year?

Last year, Martinsville’s spring race was run on a Wednesday night in June. Why? Because 2020. In the race, Logano led 234 laps and won the first stage. Jimmie Johnson led 70 laps and won the second stage. Truex – after his crew chopped off part of his car in front of his right front tire – was on rails in the final stage. He cruised to an easy win, leading the final 131 laps. It was a solid race with typical Martinsville battles throughout the field, though the finish left a lot to be desired.

This year, the race was only postponed one day – a small price to pay compared to 2020’s one-month delay. There weren’t as many leaders in the early stages of this race, as Blaney and Hamlin paced the field. The final stage and the finish were a huge improvement from last season, though. There was late-race drama and intrigue. Even as Hamlin led the most laps, he never felt solid on the long run. It was an upgrade from last season – no doubt.

Playoff picture

Finally, a repeat winner. Truex picked up five more key playoff points with his victory. Hamlin leads the overall points standings, though he’s falling behind as he continues to miss out on victories. Here’s a look at the points standings after the eighth race of the season, with still 18 regular-season races remaining:

What’s next?

The short track swing continues next weekend as the Cup Series heads to Richmond Raceway. The Toyota Owners 400 will go green on Sunday (April 18) at 3 p.m. ET on FOX for the first of two trips to Richmond this season.

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janice

they’re lucky no one got hurt on saturday night on that wet pit road.

wonder what it saturday night race would had looked like if they had used ran tires? not like martinsville has banking to deal with.

i’m glad they didn’t throw competition caution in first segment. track had enough rubber on it from the xfinity race earlier sunday afternoon.

Bill B

Great race. Agree that the start of the final stage was annoying with all those quick cautions. I wish there were more half-mile tracks on the schedule.

I was glad Hamlin didn’t win (as always) but I give him credit for not being whiny in his post-race interview. No doubt he will win one of these weeks. As for Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, they seem to be competing for who is having the most disappointing season. Neither have even been sniffing being a contender. I might even throw Keselowski in the running.

A big one at Martinsville necessitating a red flag? Now I’ve seen everything. Hell has frozen over.

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