By HANK KURZ Jr.
MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — A lot of the talk in NASCAR has been about how the sturdiness of the Next Gen car allows for more physical racing, a point the first six winners — all 30 years old and under — have celebrated with playoff spots likely secured.
That physicality is likely to be more evident than anywhere at Martinsville Speedway, the circuit’s shortest track at 0.526 miles and oldest at 75 years.
The racing is always done in close quarters, and tempers frequently flare.
Ross Chastain has, in some circles, become something of a poster boy for aggressive driving. Two weeks ago, he bumped and banged his way around the final overtime lap at Circuit of the Americas in Texas for his first career win.
Last week at Richmond, he ticked off Ryan Blaney by moving him up the track.
“Aside from the finish at COTA and my little momentary lapse in judgment last week in Richmond, I feel like I’ve done a better job,” Chastain said Friday. “And then two weeks in a row, I’ve put myself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. So yeah, I mean, people are going to gravitate quickly and pass judgment very quickly on major sporting events, and this is no different.”
It hasn’t helped his popularity that he and his team seem to have figured out the Next Gen car pretty quickly, with four top-three finishes, as others struggle.
For the second season in a row, the first seven races have been won by seven drivers. Denny Hamlin ended a string of 12 straight races won by the 30-and-under crowd at Richmond Raceway, and leads active drivers with five Martinsville victories, even though his last of those victories came in 2015.
Alex Bowman picked up one of the most unique trophies in sports — race winners here get a grandfather clock — last fall in the penultimate race of the season. He spun Hamlin, a championship contender, out of the lead and then won in overtime, perhaps a harbinger of what race fans will see this time.
“Obviously, it’s a really special trophy,” Bowman said. “We had some controversy, but still super cool to be able to win here. It means a lot to me.”
Joey Logano has one Martinsville win, and said the attention being paid to the durability of the new cars — and to some degree a shortage of replacement parts if you damage the ones you have — might be being overblown.
“My aggression level, to be honest with you, is the same all the time, whether we have a bunch of parts or not or we got 10 wins or no wins,” he said.
“I’m going to win. That’s the goal.”
The historically 500-lap race has been reduced to 400 laps this season, and Blaney expects that to yield more bumping and banging on Saturday night.
“I feel like it’s going to be a little bit more physical tomorrow night, not only because it’s 100 laps shorter. The cars can take more,” Blaney said.
“That’s what Martinsville is all about, and I think you get a car that can take it, you’re gonna see more of it. I don’t see anything kind of dumb happening or stupid aggressive, but I think you’re gonna use the bumper a little bit more, and you might use it a little quicker than you would with the previous car,” he said.
ODD AND ENDS
Defending series champion Kyle Larson is the betting favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook. … Just like last week at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. arrives having won three of the last five races here. … Blaney said he hasn’t been so bold as to determine where to put the grandfather clock trophy should he win one, but “I’ll put it right in the center of my living room, if anything, but you’ve got to get it first and then you kind of figure that out.”
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