Races are not won in single-lap spurts. In order to be strong on a flat track, drivers have to find their rhythm and be near-perfect lap after lap after lap. That’s exactly what Clint Bowyer did in Saturday’s practice for the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Bowyer logged the quickest 10- and 15-lap averages in the morning session. He was even better and more consistent in Happy Hour – topping the five-, 10-, 15-, and 20-lap charts. All three of NASCAR’s short tracks are unique, but they share a commonality in that drivers spend a bigger portion of the lap in the corners and have to roll through them quickly. Bowyer has been almost perfect on them in the past two years with only one result outside the top 10. That came in last year’s edition of this race. He won at Martinsville last spring, however.
Bowyer’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola climbed to the top of the board on the 25- and 30-charts after being second on the 10-, 15-, and 20-lap charts. Two things make this notable. Almirola was able to keep pace through 20 laps and then improved, which suggests he has a better long-run car than Bowyer.
Secondly, since both of these drivers are with the same team, it shows a consistency in setups that can probably be transferred to Kevin Harvick’s car. Harvick was eighth-best on the 10-lap chart and sixth best over 20 laps.
Erik Jones landed third on the 10-lap chart. Jones was eighth-quick in the morning session on the 10- and 15-lap charts. Because he has struggled on short tracks this year with only one top-20 (a 14th at Richmond) we have not been overly enthusiastic about his odds. Frankly this is not enough to completely reverse our opinion, but it does raise the estimation somewhat. Jones did not make very long runs in either practice. He may be preparing for a short run at the end of the 500 laps on Sunday and if he’s guessed right, could earn a top-10 in the race.
The problem with a one-day show is there is not a lot of time to recover. Five laps into the morning session, Chase Elliott had a catastrophic engine failure and his car erupted in flames. The team missed the morning session and regardless of where he qualifies, Elliott will have to drop to the back of the pack to start the race because of the engine change. This will seriously impact his odds of winning or scoring points in Stage 1.
In final practice, Elliott rebounded nicely. He had the quickest time overall when all of the laps from all of the sessions on track were combined – even though he lagged behind Clint Bowyer and three others on the 10-lap chart. It will still be difficult for Elliott to overcome his poor track position in the first stage.
All eight of the playoff contenders were close in Final Practice for Sunday’s First Data 500. Elliott was fourth on the 10-lap chart with Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin filling the next two spots. Then came Martin Truex Jr., followed by Harvick in eighth, Kyle Busch in ninth, Ryan Blaney in 11th, and Kyle Larson 12th.
Most of those same drivers held their speed onto to 15-lap chart with Truex placing third followed by Harvick (4), Logano (5), Hamlin (6), Larson (7), Blaney (8), and Busch (9). Elliott was slowest on this chart in 13th.
The opening salvo of the Round of 8 may well be tighter than we’ve seen before and that is going to place a premium on stage points. In turn, this will put added importance on qualification.