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Podium Preview: NOCO 400 at Martinsville

Alex Bowman prepares for Sunday's NOCO 400 at Martinsville. (Photo: Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

Alex Bowman prepares for Sunday’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville. (Photo: Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

RIDGEWAY, Va. – The first half of the short track season may be coming to a close with Sunday’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville (3 p.m. ET on FS1 and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). However, if the low downforce package has any input with Sunday’s 400-lap race, it may be an exciting, action packed event around the 0.526-mile short track.

Regardless of the car and current crop of drivers, Martinsville Speedway remains one of the toughest tracks in the NASCAR Cup Series. Mainly, it is a test on driver and equipment with heavy braking zones and shifting placing a premium on the Gen-7 stock cars.

Moreover, drivers and teams typically deal with a headache filled race due to the frequent occurrence of encountering drivers at least a lap behind. Lead lap contenders have to sift through the traffic like those on I-85 and I-75 in greater Charlotte.

Did this preview mention about brakes? Well, these cars may seem more durable than past generations, but preserving brakes in the first 300 laps separates the pretenders from the contenders. A fast, dominant car in the early going may mean little when it comes down to the final 100 laps of the race.

Last year, William Byron dominated at the paperclip-shaped track under the Saturday night lights in chilly conditions. On Sunday afternoon, it is literally a race for a grandfather clock against the clock with inclement weather threatening the 400-lap race.

Byron looks to defend his victory but he has formidable challengers in Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr., and Daniel Suárez to consider. It remains to be seen how those who qualified toward the rear, like Kyle Larson, Bell and the returning Chase Elliott will fare on Sunday afternoon.

Once the flag waves the green flag to kick off this new season, it is anyone’s guess as to who will prevail in this year’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville. For the time being, come along for the ride this and each race weekend with Podium Preview.

This weekend, Jasmine SharpeKobe LambethMatt SisolerTeresa Bennink and yours truly ponder over the low downforce package for Martinsville and the rising stock of Christopher Bell.

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Question 1
Can the low downforce package's successes this year carry over into Sunday's NOCO 400? (Photo: Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

Can the low downforce package’s successes this year carry over into Sunday’s NOCO 400? (Photo: Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

While we have seen the new low downforce aerodynamic package used at Phoenix, Circuit of the Americas, and Richmond, this will be its first appearance at Martinsville. What can we expect in terms of the action on Sunday based on what we’ve seen so far this year?

Lambeth : So far, the new low downforce aero package has put on a compelling show at Phoenix, COTA and Richmond. Heading to southern Virginia, people certainly have to feel cautiously optimistic about what to expect this weekend at “The Paperclip.” Expect beating, banging and some hot tempers which is typical Martinsville.

However, I believe most people will be paying attention to how much passing will take place during a long green flag run. If the drivers can have an easier time making overtakes instead of “getting stuck” behind another car, then the race will likely be viewed as a success.

Sisoler : I think it at least deserves a chance heading into Martinsville weekend. Phoenix and Richmond showed some promise, but Martinsville drives differently than those two other short tracks, so it’s a wait and see. Hopefully the racing will be better, but there is no guarantee that it will be. 

Torres : Drivers felt Martinsville had lost its “Midas Touch” a year ago due to underwhelming racing, notably AJ Allmendinger being vocal about it during last week’s media bullpen. Specifically, the spring race saw five lead changes and barely any action worth writing home about.

I’m cautiously hoping the Cup race is remotely good because you can shorten the race from 500 to 400 laps, but if the action isn’t good due to the package, it won’t matter. Phoenix was fine and Richmond was a bit better, which concerns me a bit how it’ll work in Martinsville. We will find out if it’s like those oval races or history repeating itself.

Sharpe : After watching the Cup Series practice Saturday evening, it seems that the low downforce package is a great fit for a track like Martinsville. Competition is able to bump and slam into one another without running the risk of damaging the car or the way it handles.My concern of course is the body of the car itself, with the Next Gen cars needing to be revised after two concussions occurred last year.

Earlier in the season at the LA Clash, several drivers discussed how sore they were overall due to the constant bumps and taps endured throughout the event. While seeing the field being racy is great and what fans and drivers overall want to see at smaller tracks such as “The Paperclip”, safety should be the top and main priority.

Question 2
Can Bell ring the victory chimes again at Martinsville? (Photo: Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

Can Bell ring the victory chimes again at Martinsville? (Photo: Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

Given Christopher Bell’s rising stock in NASCAR Cup Series competition, are there times that he is sorely underrated by press and fans given his successes with Joe Gibbs Racing since 2021?

Tiongson : Absolutely. As I wrote in my feature this week, Bell’s consistency and steady ways are so under the radar, it is about time he gets the focus and attention that his frontrunning peers receive on a weekly basis.

Let’s face it. Bell is the present and immediate future of Joe Gibbs Racing like Kyle Busch was from 2008 to 2021. Bell has the speak softly and carry a big heavy foot approach of Matt Kenseth, the ability to dominate like Busch and methodical approach of current teammate, Martin Truex Jr.

Martinsville was the site of Bell’s ticket into the Championship 4 last November. The fact that the Norman, Oklahoma native tallied two Game 7 moment like victories in last year’s NASCAR Playoffs was so impressive, it sparked the realization that he is championship contender material. Look for Bell to be strong this year and this Sunday at Martinsville.

Bennink : I don’t know if it is so much underrated as it is overlooked. Bell is quiet and often flies under the radar with his quiet demeanor and driving style, and his accomplishments fall to the wayside in favor of flashier stories.

Bell has four wins since the last Gibbs driver has had a win, and quietly made his way to the last round of the playoffs last year. His story was pushed to the back with events such as the Chastain wall ride at Martinsville, Gibbs’ incredible rookie year due to Kurt Busch’s injury and speculation surrounding that and the incident between Wallace and Larson at Las Vegas.

I do not think that anyone doubts his talent. Bell quietly goes about his ways, and it is the quiet ones that tend to sneak up to the championship ranks when you least expect it.

Two laps around Martinsville without traffic is like a bit of Dance Dance Revolution. If that does not make you feel old, then rewinding to last Sunday night’s Food City Dirt Race, the ninth of 36 races of the NASCAR Cup Series season, may make you feel younger.
Tyler Reddick nearly scored a victory for a trio of panelists.

Tyler Reddick nearly scored a victory for a trio of panelists.

Lambeth's points lead remains the same over Sisoler.

Lambeth’s points lead remains the same over Sisoler.

Here’s a look at the top 10 starters for Sunday’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville!
Row 1 – Ryan Preece and Daniel Suárez
(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre and Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre and Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

Row 2 – Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe
(Photo: Trish McCormack and Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

(Photo: Trish McCormack and Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

Row 3 – Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick
(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

Row 4 – Kevin Harvick and William Byron
(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre and Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre and Trish McCormack | The Podium Finish)

Row 5 –  Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher
(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

(Photo: Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

Last but not least, here is our picks for Sunday’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville!
It is a wide open race as far as our panelists are concerned. (Photo: Trish McCormack and Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

It is a wide open race as far as our panelists are concerned. (Photo: Trish McCormack and Mitchell Richtmyre | The Podium Finish)

Tiongson : If Christopher Bell wants to make his life a bit easier for this year’s NASCAR Playoffs, a victory at Martinsville on Sunday will do wonders. Tallying additional wins means more Playoff points that could be a safety net should mulligans arise in the postseason run.

Sharpe : Daniel Suárez showed great potential during qualifying Saturday evening, only being beat by SHR’s Ryan Preece. His fiery passion and determination is a great sign and will be key for Suarez in order for him to stay out front and not allow other competitors to pass him.

Lambeth : After the first nine races, we haven’t really seen Denny Hamlin as a serious contender for the win. However, I think that changes this weekend at Martinsville, with Hamlin putting the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry in victory lane for the first time in 2023!

Bennink : Throughout the field this weekend at Martinsville there has been some good racing, but the top of the field remained relatively unchanged. Martin Truex Jr. has proven he know how to navigate the paperclip style track with three wins in the last seven races at Martinsville.

Sisoler : With passing possibly going to be at a premium for the race, it’s a good idea to pick someone near the front. Tyler Reddick has looked solid all weekend long, so I’m taking the No. 45 to win at Martinsville!

Torres : You can honestly pick any of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers as an excellent choice to bring the team its 28th Martinsville win. However, if I had to choose one driver that’s going to do so, William Byron would be my first choice.

He’s simply having his best season to date, even more than a year ago when early Spring was his peak. With or without Rudy Fugle, Byron’s No. 24 team has shown more improvement and even if the race is in the daytime, I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week as we celebrate our 15th anniversary of operations!

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

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Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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