NASCAR Barometer:  Kyle Larson Gets First Martinsville Victory

NASCAR Barometer: Kyle Larson Gets First Martinsville Victory

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday's NOCO 400 offered unexpected twists and turns that gave Kyle Larson the chance to score his first win at Martinsville Speedway and his second win of the 2023 season. After qualifying 19th and struggling with the car's handling in traffic through much of the afternoon the tables were turned when a late caution offered him the chance to gamble on pit strategy and capitalize with the win. Ryan Preece and Stewart Haas Racing seemed to be the team to beat early with all drivers running at the front of the field. A speeding penalty then took Preece out of contention while other teams began to experiment with tire strategy. Those experiments paid dividends when it became clear that old tires were not as big of a factor as they had historically been. Larson and team took that lesson to heart and used a two-tire stop to get off pit road quickly under the final caution of the race, and Larson then put the pedal to the metal to stretch out a comfortable lead on his way to the checkered flag.

Unique tire strategy likely won't have an impact on this week's race like we saw at Martinsville. Talladega Superspeedway marks a return to high speed drafting packs last seen in February's Daytona 500. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the winner that day, and many others will see the unpredictable nature of superspeedway racing as an opportunity to join him as a 2023 winner. Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott won the

Sunday's NOCO 400 offered unexpected twists and turns that gave Kyle Larson the chance to score his first win at Martinsville Speedway and his second win of the 2023 season. After qualifying 19th and struggling with the car's handling in traffic through much of the afternoon the tables were turned when a late caution offered him the chance to gamble on pit strategy and capitalize with the win. Ryan Preece and Stewart Haas Racing seemed to be the team to beat early with all drivers running at the front of the field. A speeding penalty then took Preece out of contention while other teams began to experiment with tire strategy. Those experiments paid dividends when it became clear that old tires were not as big of a factor as they had historically been. Larson and team took that lesson to heart and used a two-tire stop to get off pit road quickly under the final caution of the race, and Larson then put the pedal to the metal to stretch out a comfortable lead on his way to the checkered flag.

Unique tire strategy likely won't have an impact on this week's race like we saw at Martinsville. Talladega Superspeedway marks a return to high speed drafting packs last seen in February's Daytona 500. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the winner that day, and many others will see the unpredictable nature of superspeedway racing as an opportunity to join him as a 2023 winner. Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott won the two races at the track last season. Both of those drivers remain winless so far this season and will be aiming for nothing less than to repeat their success from a year ago.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson qualified 19th and and finished both opening stages of Sunday's race at Martinsville at the tail end of the top 10. That all changed in the final stage when the team took a two-tire stop under the final caution to gain track position, though. The move paid dividends when Larson leveraged that track position to get out front and lead for the first time that afternoon, pulling away to a nearly four-second lead and claiming his second win of 2023. The win was Larson's first at Martinsville and makes him just the second driver to score a second victory this season. Momentum and confidence are building at the moment and the team's consistency week to week continues to improve. This week's trip to Talladega could be another opportunity for them to spend time out front, too. Larson has led in each of the last three races there.

Joey Logano – Logano's race at Martinsville was a mighty turnaround from start to finish. The defending series champion qualified 15th and started from the back due to an unapproved adjustment after qualifying. Logano struggled with his car through much of the early running and failed to score stage points in either of the race's opening segments. Things started to turn around when the team delivered adjustments that helped the handling, but that fix didn't solve Logano's track position problem. The opportunity to fix that problem came very late in the running when the team kept Logano on track with just under 60 laps remaining. Logano leveraged that track position to keep ahead of the charging field behind him for the final run to the checkered flag with a runner-up finish. It was truly a championship turnaround from a championship winning team.

Martin Truex Jr. - A top-five weekend added to Truex's career of fine form at Martinsville. His third-place finish Sunday was a quick turnaround from two finishes of 20th or worse there last season. It was also his first top-five of the 2023 season and his second top-10 in a row. The team will be buoyed by the fact that they were quick the entire weekend with a fifth-place qualifying effort, too. The past two weeks of good form could be a sign that this team might be in line for a win in the near term. While they would probably prefer another weekend at the short tracks, they haven't been bad at Talladega. Truex finished fifth there last spring and he started in the top 10 there in five of his last six visits. He also led 13 laps in the Daytona 500 in February and that speed is likely to be present again at Talladega.

Ryan Preece - Preece started the Martinsville race weekend off with a monster of a lap that landed him his first series pole position. He then used starting spot advantage to dominate the first stage and win the segment, which was also the first of his career. A speeding penalty early in the second stage proved costly, though. After losing track position from that mistake he struggled to climb back to the front and spent the remainder of the afternoon mired in traffic. What looked like a first series win ended with a 15th-place finish despite 135 laps led. While that result wasn't what it could have been, it proved that Preece has the potential to win races. Fantasy player should expect that promise to solidify and increase as he and the team gain more experience. Preece has six Talladega starts with a best finish of third on his debut in 2019 when he started 30th.

Kevin Harvick - Veteran and series champion Kevin Harvick grabbed his first stage since 2020 when he made his way by Ross Chastain and led the last 14 laps of the second stage Sunday. The promising day came undone when a front wheel nut came off and caused the brake rotor to destroy the front wheel, sending the car to pit road for an unscheduled replacement with just 50 laps remaining. The good news was that the issue happened under caution, but the bad news was that it came with too few laps left to recover. Unfortunately, the race had so few laps remaining that it negated his ability to have a finish that was representative of his speed. Fantasy players should keep in mind that Harvick has consistently shown race-winning speed this season, though.  Harvick has one Talladega victory from 44 career starts. He finished 10th in the spring race last season and 29th in the fall.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch - Last week's visit to Martinsville was a humbling one for Busch. Despite being a two-time winner at the track Busch and team seemed lost all weekend. First, he failed to qualify well and only started the race 17th. During the race the team failed to find the adjustments they needed to help and Busch spent the entire race buried in the field. He failed to score any stage points and finished the race a disappointing 21st. Hopefully the team can take some lessons from the day that will help them perform better in the return trip this fall when Busch could be fighting for the championship. Up next is a place where things could turn around quickly. Richard Childress Racing consistently turn out some of the fastest superspeedway cars, and Busch could use that to be at the front again after he led six laps earlier this season at Daytona.

Todd Gilliland – A four-race run of top-15 finishes came to an end for Gilliland Sunday afternoon. The day started with promise after he started 13th and scored stage points in the second segment. Unfortunately, an issue with his car's engine laid waste to that potential and left him limping for the remainder of the afternoon. Gilliland ended the afternoon a lap down in 25th position. Sunday's trouble may have been an unceremonious end to a promising few weeks, but the opportunity to recover quickly and start a new streak could come as soon as this week. The team will need to diagnose the issue that hampered their performance and come to Talladega ready to race the top 15 again. This is a place the team can outperform expectations if they can avoid trouble. Gilliland finished seventh there last fall.

Christopher Bell – Bell was unable to back up his win on Bristol's dirt surface with a top finish Sunday at Martinsville. His 16th-place finish Sunday was disappointing for a few reasons. First, he was the defending winner of the race after taking the checkered flag in 2022. Second, Sunday proved to be a good afternoon for his teammates who both finished in the top five. In a season where Bell had been the fastest of the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates it was a reversal of recent trends. The good news is that Bell has the Bristol win that he can fall back on should he hit a slump. One race does not make a slump, though. He gets another chance to fight back this week at Talladega where started on pole both times last year and has a best result of fifth. Fantasy players won't be too quick to count him out any time soon.

William Byron – A promising outing Sunday turned into a learning experience for Byron and team. After being among the fastest in practice the No. 24 team found Sunday's condition more challenging. Byron started inside the top 10 and was able to finish the first stage in 10th position, but that was about the extent of the highlights. Sunday's overcast conditions changed the racetrack significantly from what teams practiced in on Saturday, and it appeared as though the No. 24 machine just missed the mark. Track position proved to be one of the most significant factors and Byron spent the entire race distance battling in traffic, ultimately finishing toward the end of the lead lap in 23rd. Sunday's finish was also the third where Byron was outside of the top 20 in the last five races. With two 2023 victories in hand there isn't much to be concerned about, but fantasy players would be hoping for most consistent top-10s from Byron each week.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Chase Elliott – A 10th-place finish from Elliott normally wouldn't count as a surprise, but his Martinsville race was different. After spending the last six weeks out of action following a snowboarding accident Elliott returned to the car this past weekend. First, he qualified 24th Saturday afternoon. A top-20 or perhaps a top-15 result Sunday would have amounted to a respectable return, and that is where things appeared to be heading as Sunday's race aged. In the final fuel run he got the chassis adjustments he needed to move the car forward, though. From within the top 15 he then navigated his way to a 10th-place finish on his return. That finish indicates the season may not be lost. He was granted a waiver for playoff eligibility from NASCAR and one win would put him back in that conversation.

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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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