Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR Notebook: Elliott Speeds to Best Martinsville Finish

MARTINSVILLE, Va. –– When it came to Chase Elliott’s performance in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Martinsville Speedway, the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was suffering from a severe lack of self-esteem.

After Sunday’s STP 500 at the .526-mile short track, Elliott will have to re-evaluate.

Starting on the outside of the front row after rain washed out Friday’s time trials, Elliott ran in the top five for the bulk of the afternoon and rolled home third, by far his best result in four Monster Energy Series starts at the iconic track.

In fact, Elliott has shown steady improvement since running 38th in his 2015 debut at the track. In last year’s races, he was 20th and 12th. His third-place finish on Sunday followed a victory in a 250-lapper in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

“We started the race, and for whatever reason, my car would not turn at all for the first three or four laps, and I about knocked whoever was on the outside of me back to Charlotte a couple times, and I thought we were going to drop like a rock,” Elliott said. “Fortunately, I don’t know if it was just being on the splitter or whatever it was, but actually our car kind of came to life and started turning pretty good.

“From there, it drove pretty similar throughout the entire day. Like I said, I hope it’s a consistent trend, that we can continue to run decent here. Obviously, we’d love to kind of take that next step and try to contend for a win. But from where I’ve been here in the past, night and day, so I was really happy and proud of that.”

Stenhouse applies the bumper — and can expect payback
The essence of stage racing crystalized into one dramatic moment on lap 260 of Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Coming to the green/checkers at the end of Stage 2, Kyle Busch passed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to put the No. 17 Ford a lap down. But as Busch rolled through Turns 3 and 4, Stenhouse gave Busch two whacks to the bumper, knocked Busch’s No. 18 Toyota up the track in Turn 4 and executed a pass to stay on the lead lap.

Stenhouse’s tap also allowed Chase Elliot to dive to the inside of Busch’s car and get to the stripe first, depriving Busch of a stage win and a playoff point.

Busch has filed the incident in his memory banks.

“They were doing everything they could in order to stay on the lead lap, but when you’ve got the leader to your outside and you just keep banging him off the corner, that’s pretty disrespectful,” Busch said.

“But do whatever you want. You know, it’s going to come back and bite you one of these days. You’ve just got to always remember race car drivers are like elephants — they remember everything. Every time they see a mouse, they remember.”

Dillon’s run validates progress at RCR
Ryan Newman’s victory at Phoenix Raceway, made possible by staying out on old tires, seemingly came out of nowhere. After all, no Richard Childress Racing driver had won an event in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since 2013 before Newman took the checkered flag at Phoenix.

But the speed in the RCR cars has improved, as both Austin Dillon and Newman proved in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Dillon came home fifth, his first top-five finish since running fourth at Bristol last August.
Newman contributed an eighth-place finish.

“We didn’t have the speed the first couple practices, which for some reason I never do here,” Dillon said. “It’s just a trend. I can’t go fast enough to start, and then we consistently get better throughout practice and the race. It’s nice to do that, but I wish I could not give the field half a race before we get up through there.

“Starting 20th was big for us because our last practice was good. Our car had take-off speed the whole day. It’s the first race car we’ve had that can actually restart and go for the first five laps, and that’s a lot of fun, and we’ve got to focus on that. I think the way the new racing is with the stages and stuff, short-run speed is key, and if you have long run speed, falloff, it really doesn’t matter because you’re going to get a caution at some point.”

Dillon was strong during the final 64-lap green-flag run but couldn’t catch the cars of race winner Brad Keselowski or runner-up Kyle Busch.

“I thought we were going to have a little something for the two leaders, but in middle of the run, our car just lacked a little bit more turn and forward drive,” Dillon said. “Then at the end we could come back to them again. I think I was running the 22 (fourth-place finisher Joey Logano) back down there at the end.
“Just proud of my guys and thankful for this run — we needed it.

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service