NASCAR Barometer: Byron Tops Hendrick Domination at Martinsville

NASCAR Barometer: Byron Tops Hendrick Domination at Martinsville

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

William Byron and Chase Elliott dominated Saturday night's rain-delayed visit to Martinsville. Elliott started from pole and went on to lead the first 185 laps, winning both opening stages of the night. After Byron beat the No. 9 off of pit road during the stage break, the momentum shifted toward him, though. The driver of the No. 24 took that advantage and proceeded to lead all but six of the remaining laps, winning the race and becoming the first driver to win multiple races in 2022. The race was notable for its relative lack of cautions, too. Drivers off the pace found little opportunity to make adjustments, with just two caution periods aside from the scheduled stage breaks. Those long green-flag periods spared Elliott and Byron from battling through multiple restarts and shifted the emphasis to clean air and long-run pace. Still, the last caution forced an overtime finish that gave the field one last late chance to disrupt the inevitable, but Byron persevered and stretched his lead just enough to hold off a late push from Joey Logano to capture the win.

This week the series heads to the last of its three-race stint on short tracks. The trip to Bristol promises to be something different, though, with the track's dirt surface making its second appearance on the calendar after debuting last season. Last year's race offered little by way of passing, and Logano used that trend to lead the final 61 laps to score his only 2021 win.

William Byron and Chase Elliott dominated Saturday night's rain-delayed visit to Martinsville. Elliott started from pole and went on to lead the first 185 laps, winning both opening stages of the night. After Byron beat the No. 9 off of pit road during the stage break, the momentum shifted toward him, though. The driver of the No. 24 took that advantage and proceeded to lead all but six of the remaining laps, winning the race and becoming the first driver to win multiple races in 2022. The race was notable for its relative lack of cautions, too. Drivers off the pace found little opportunity to make adjustments, with just two caution periods aside from the scheduled stage breaks. Those long green-flag periods spared Elliott and Byron from battling through multiple restarts and shifted the emphasis to clean air and long-run pace. Still, the last caution forced an overtime finish that gave the field one last late chance to disrupt the inevitable, but Byron persevered and stretched his lead just enough to hold off a late push from Joey Logano to capture the win.

This week the series heads to the last of its three-race stint on short tracks. The trip to Bristol promises to be something different, though, with the track's dirt surface making its second appearance on the calendar after debuting last season. Last year's race offered little by way of passing, and Logano used that trend to lead the final 61 laps to score his only 2021 win. There were just five different leaders in last year's race, so hopefully the new car and running the event under the lights will help to spice up the action.

UPGRADE

William Byron – Byron kept Elliott in touch through the first two stages, and got his first taste of the lead at the start of the final segment when his team got him off pit road first. That was the opening he needed to go on and dominate the final stage and survive a late overtime restart to become the first driver to win multiple races this season. It was a perfect weekend for the Hendrick driver, as he also won Thursday night's Trucks Series race at the track. Next he will try to replicate that same success on Bristol's dirt track. Byron had just a few starts on dirt surfaces prior to last year's trip to Bristol, but that lack of experience didn't hinder him, as he finished the race sixth and was second in the first stage that afternoon. 

Chase Elliott – Elliott led every lap of the first two stages Saturday night at Martinsville. In doing so, he ended up leading the 10,000th lap at the track for Hendrick Motorsports, which is the most of any team at any track in NASCAR history. The No. 9 was the dominant player through the first two stages Sunday night and only relinquished the lead when teammate Byron got off of pit road first to start the final stage. That slight delay cost him the race, as his car failed to perform in traffic and he never returned to the lead. Elliott survived the Bristol dirt race last season to earn stage points in the second segment and ended the afternoon in 10th position. The 2020 series champion has been making dirt track appearances more frequently to build his experience for the second dirt appearance at Bristol for the Cup competitors.

Joey Logano – Trying as hard as he could, Logano just couldn't get close enough to Byron in the final turn of Saturday night's race to make a serious challenge for the win. The Team Penske driver worked his way to the front in the long green-flag runs in the final stage and had the chance to make a fight of it with the late restart. He was able to give Byron a little nudge, but it wasn't strong enough to truly upset the No. 24, as the Hendrick machine pulled ahead on the final lap. The runner-up finish was Logano's second top-five of the season and was one of the first where the Penske drivers maintained their strong pace through an entire race distance. Logano is the defending winner on Bristol's dirt surface. He was one of five leaders in that race and led the final 61 laps to win. 

Aric Almirola – Almirola has quietly been putting together a strong season and bolstered that early success with an eighth-place finish Saturday. The veteran driver in his final year of full-time competition is sitting 12th in the championship standings after eight races with four top-10 finishes. His season started with three finishes of sixth or better before he hit a four-race slump with two finishes in and two finishes out of the top 20. He used his car's pace to start on the front row for Saturday's race, though. He finished both stages inside the top 10 and then held station to add that fourth top-10 finish to his season tally. Despite the strong run last week, Almirola may still be a gamble for Bristol. He crashed out of the dirt race last year before the 50th lap.

Ross Chastain – There doesn't appear to be much that can slow Chastain this year. The Trackhouse Racing driver already has five top-five finishes this season including his win on the road course at the Circuit of the Americas. After a quick blip with a 19th-place finish two weeks ago at Richmond he immediately rushed back with a fifth-place Saturday at Martinsville. The weekend didn't start out looking like it would be a success either after he qualified just 27th. Despite missing out on stage points due to that early track position, he and the team persevered and worked their way forward for the finish. That effort was nothing short of impressive given the lack of cautions that would normally have helped them climb forward more quickly. Chastain crashed out of last year's Bristol dirt race but should still be one to watch for fantasy players this week.

DOWNGRADE

Martin Truex Jr. – Joe Gibbs Racing didn't have the measure of the Hendrick teammates at Martinsville. Truex dealt with a tight condition throughout the race, but the wheels really came off of his charge after what was supposed to be his final stop. Returning to the track after pitting, he suffered a flat right-front tire and was immediately forced back to pit road for a change. The fact that the entire situation happened under green was the worst-case scenario, too. Truex returned to the fray multiple laps down and finished a lowly 22nd. He may look forward to next week's dirt race, though. He won the Trucks Series race on the surface and led 126 laps in the Cup version.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin struggled with his car's handling right from the green flag Saturday night. The winner just the week prior in Richmond slipped down the running order and fell off of the lead lap. That slow start left him mired a lap down to the leaders in a race with very few cautions from which to recover. He missed out on stage points in both segments. His chance to get back onto the lead lap never came, and his long night ended with a 28th-place finish. The finish was Hamlin's second in the last four outside of the top 20 and his fourth of the season. Hamlin needs to get a better handle on setting up this new car to get over his early inconsistency. He was the third-place finisher at Bristol last spring, but fantasy players may want to approach his selection with caution this week given his current challenges.

Daniel Suarez – Saturday night was a disappointment for Suarez. He was one of the drivers who struggled with handling issues throughout the night. Suarez started the race 30th and then fell a lap behind in the first stage. As the team worked to get the car to turn better for him, he fell another lap behind in the second stage. The race's lack of cautions left almost no opportunities for the team to make the adjustments Suarez needed to be more competitive, and the team limped away with a 29th-place finish. The finish was the No. 99's worst since Las Vegas and puts them in a bit of a hole heading to Bristol this week. A race on the dirt could be what they need to have a quick rebound,however. Suarez placed fourth in last year's dirt race, picking up stage points in both opening segments.

Kyle Larson – Despite Hendrick Motorsports dominating Saturday night's running at Martinsville, a small slip by Larson earned him another disappointing finish at the track. Larson ran inside the top 15 for much of the night but never showed the same pace as his teammates. The final misstep that left him the last finisher on the lead lap was a pit road speeding penalty. The mistake was magnified given the green-flag stops and dug Larson a hole that was impossible to climb out. While Martinsville was a night to forget for the team, good things may still be in store this week on the dirt. Larson is one of the most accomplish drivers on dirt surfaces and was one of the favorites in last year's race until a crash thwarted his chances. He'll get another shot this weekend.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Austin Dillon – Dillon turned in an impressive Martinsville performance, racing through the field for his second top-five of the season. The No. 3 didn't show too much in qualifying and started the night race toward the rear in 23rd position. He finished the second stage in the top 10 to earn some extra points and then went on to finish third, which was his best result since his second-place finish at California. Saturday's result was Dillon's third top-10 in a row and sets him up nicely for another one this week at Bristol. Dillon has been a fan of dirt racing and likely could have finished better than his 21st-place showing at Bristol last season were it not for him getting caught in a wreck a little past the halfway mark that afternoon. Fantasy players should keep Dillon on their radar this week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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