The First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway is another two-day show with practice and qualification all occurring on Saturday.
Unlike many tracks, qualification is very important at Martinsville. The pits are tight and there is very little room for error. The further back on pit road one is, the more likely it is that they will get trapped behind someone who is being overly cautious and that is going to ultimately cost track position.
Practice is also important. This is a rhythm track and only a little speed can be found during the two sessions. What they reveal, however, is which teams and drivers rolled off the hauler fast with a good baseline setup. There were very few surprises on Saturday and most of the drivers highlighted in pre-weekend coverage confirmed their status.
Long runs are more predictive of success than single laps.
Playoff contenders swept the top three spots in regard to 10-lap averages in the first practice session and had four of the top-five spots. Martin Truex Jr. was quickest with a speed of 94.804 mph. Aric Almirola was second at 94.702 with third at Clint Bowyer 94.474.
Kyle Busch posted the fifth quickest time at 94.456.
The only one of these drivers who can remotely be considered a long shot is Almirola who has a less than stellar career at Martinsville. He has not scored a top-10 in his last eight starts there, but he entered the weekend with a lot of confidence. That might be the difference between finishing outside that mark another time and challenging for a victory that will lock him into the championship round.
Short, flat track master Denny Hamlin was the only non-playoff contender to record a top-five average in the first session with a 94.469. In his last six starts at Martinsville, however, he has finished outside the top 10 three times, which has made him a little hit or miss.
In Happy Hour, Busch (94.205) posted the quickest average speed. Bowyer was third to sweep the top five in both sessions.
Kevin Harvick jumped up from the slowest average speed among playoff contenders in practice 1 and 18th overall to record the fifth-quickest lap in final practice. One never truly knows what drivers are working on during sessions, so his quick speed in the final practice should take precedence.
Busch got his weekend bid off to a strong start. He posted a lap of 96.254 and will lead the field to green on Sunday. Busch has one previous pole at Martinsville in spring 2014. He finished 14th in that race. He qualified second this spring and finished second. In his post-qualification interview, Busch noted how important it is to win this race and automatically advance to the final round of the playoffs.
This spring’s winner, Bowyer recorded a lap of 95.122 and lines up on the outside of the front row. In three starts with Stewart-Haas Racing, he has never failed to qualify or finish in the top 10. He is likely to finish that well again this week, but all of the drivers outside of the top three in points will be focused on the race win instead of simply having a solid finish.
Harvick struggled in qualification and landed 13th on the grid. He started in that same spot last fall as well before finishing fifth. He advanced in the closing laps of last year's First Data 500 in the closing laps after several of the leaders crashed in separate incidents. This spring, he earned another top five, but his job is going to be challenging this Sunday.
Chase Elliott was the worst among the playoff contenders. With a speed of 95.146, he will roll off 21st – exactly where he started this spring. He was barely able to crack the top 10 in the STP 500 with a ninth and is suddenly much less attractive as a fantasy option.
Bubba Wallace crashed in the first round of qualification with about nine minutes remaining. He did heavy damage to the No. 43 and will be forced into a backup car. Wallace finished 34th at Martinsville in the spring – 14 laps off the pace. He posted the 32nd fastest lap, but will fall to the back of the field in a backup car.