Heading into tonight (June 10)’s Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, new eyes will be on the NASCAR Cup Series as it heads to the series’s oldest track, Martinsville Speedway, for what could be its newest tradition, the Martinsville night race.
Although the last three fall Cup races at Martinsville have finished near darkness or after sunset, the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 (7 p.m. EST; TV: FS1, Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the first time, in what will be the 143rd race at Martinsville, that a race at the historic 0.526 paper clip-shaped oval will be run as a night race.
The inaugural Martinsville night race marks the third race of the low downforce package’s return. When the series last raced at Martinsville with the package, in 2018, Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. out of the way in a move that locked Logano into the Championship Four three weeks later at Homestead-Miami, where Logano won the Cup title and “the damn war” between him and Truex. Logano starts third Wednesday night and has made the first step toward winning this year’s “war”, with wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix. However, Truex has not won yet, marking the first time since 2016 that the driver of the no. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has entered race 11 of the season without a win.
Despite this, Truex has momentum on his side. In Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta, Truex scored a season-best third-place finish, moving him to fifth in the Cup points, 114 points ahead of 17th place no. 24 William Byron. Truex enters Wednesday night’s race as the most recent winner at Martinsville, having bested Byron in October for the fifth-most dominating win in the track’s 72-year history, with 464 of 500 laps led en route to the win.
16 of his 26 Cup wins in his career have come from a top 5 starting spot, including his October win, which bodes well for Truex’s chances as he starts fifth Wednesday night.
Atlanta winner no. 4 Kevin Harvick enters Wednesday night having scored his second win of the season and being off to a consistent start to the season with only one finish outside of the top 10.
The 2014 Cup champion starts Wednesday night’s race in 10th, with top 10s in the last five Martinsville Cup races but no wins at the track since the April 2011 race and no laps led since the April 2016 race. Harvick is not the only Cup champion on a dry spell at Martinsville, as nine-time winner no. 48 Jimmie Johnson has not won at Martinsville since the October 2016 race.
For Johnson, however, he has not finished in the top 10 at Martinsville since that race. In the six Martinsville races since then, Johnson has led in only one race, the October 2017 race where he led 24 laps and finished 12th, his best finish in that six-race timespan.
Johnson is off to his best start to the season in 2020, in terms of top 10 finishes, since 2016. In 2016, Johnson had six top 10s after 10 races, while Johnson has scored five top 10s in 10 races so far in 2020. Johnson also finished in the top 10 in both Martinsville races in 2016 so a strong start could indicate a strong run Wednesday night for Johnson if the correlation were to imply causation.
Johnson starts 21st, which would be his worst start en route to a win if he were to pull off the win Wednesday night. A Wednesday night win would also be his 10th at the track, breaking a tie he is currently in with mentor Jeff Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner.
Johnson and Gordon are two drivers who have more than made their mark on NASCAR with their on-track performances, but one driver who has made his mark on the league off the track, just in recent times, has been no. 43 Bubba Wallace.
Wallace has become the culprit of a wave of change that has come to NASCAR over the last week, in light of recent worldwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis while in police custody.
From NASCAR honoring Floyd before the start of the June 7 Atlanta race to announcing support for LGBTQ+ activist group, You Can Play, to allowing peaceful protests during the national anthem and to now banning the Confederate flag from all NASCAR events and properties, Wallace has been important in pushing for change that stands to progress the sport forward.
On the track, Wallace has been progressing his performance this season. After 10 races in 2019, Wallace sat 28th in points with no top 10s or laps led and a best finish of 17th. After 10 races this season, Wallace sits 22nd in points with two top 10s, three laps led and a best finish of sixth, all his best statistics after 10 races since 2018.
Wallace is on the up and up at Martinsville, having finished 13th in the October Martinsville race. Wallace was successful at the track during his Truck Series days with two wins, four top 5s, five top 10s and a 3.8 average finish in five races there. His first win at Martinsville, in October 2013, was not only a watershed race for Wallace, who scored his first career Truck win then, but for NASCAR as Wallace was the first African-American driver to win a national series race since December 1963 when Wendell Scott won a race in the Cup Series when it was known as the Grand National Division.
Wallace starts 23rd Wednesday night and if the 26-year-old rookie were to take his no. 43 #BlackLivesMatter Chevrolet Camaro, it would be a milestone for not only NASCAR but also the black community in the U.S. and the sports world as a whole.
No. 12 Ryan Blaney will lead the field to the green flag for the Blue Emu 500, with no. 10 Aric Almirola starting alongside him.
Almirola sits 11th in points, 40 points ahead of 17th place William Byron, while Blaney sits 7th in points, 97 points ahead of Byron.
Top 20 in Cup points:
1. Kevin Harvick (421 points; 2 wins, starts 10th)
2. Joey Logano (373 points -48; 2 wins, starts 3rd)
3. Chase Elliott (365 points, -56; 1 win, starts 11th)
4. Brad Keselowski (346 points, -75; 2 wins, starts 6th)
5. Martin Truex Jr. (334 points, -87, starts 5th)
6. Denny Hamlin (322 points, -99; 2 wins, starts 12th)
7. Ryan Blaney (317 points, -104, starts 1st)
8. Alex Bowman (314 points, -107; 1 win, starts 8th)
9. Kyle Busch (308 points, -113; starts 7th)
10. Kurt Busch (284 points, -137; starts 9th)
11. Aric Almirola (260 points, +40 over 17th place William Byron; starts 2nd)
12. Clint Bowyer (259 points, +39; starts 4th)
13. Jimmie Johnson (256 points, +36; starts 21st)
14. Austin Dillon (247 points, +27; starts 22nd)
15. Matt DiBenedetto (246 points, +26; starts 19th)
16. Erik Jones (240 points, +20; starts 13th)
17. William Byron (220 points, -20 behind 16th place Erik Jones; starts 15th)
18. Tyler Reddick (207 points, -33; starts 14th)
19. Chris Buescher (194 points, -46; starts 24th)
20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (185 points, -55; starts 17th)
Rookie of the Year battle:
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (185 points)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-28)
No. 41 Cole Custer (-49)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-49)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-128)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-162)
Coverage of the Blue Emu Maximum Relief 500 starts at 7 p.m. EST (TV: FS1; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with the green flag expected to fly at 7:23 p.m. EST.
Stages will be 130 laps/130 laps/240 laps with the race ending at lap 500. The race is official after lap 250, should there be inclement weather or circumstances preventing the race from completing the entirety of its advertised distance.