After coming off of a three race west coast swing, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stars head back east for a race this weekend at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. While most drivers look forward to the trek back east, some don’t love the first race back. While Stewart-Haas Racing has enjoyed a ton of success out of the gates to the 2018 season, a couple of drivers are a little wary of Sunday’s STP 500 (2 p.m. ET/FS1/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Clint Bowyer joked ahead of this weekend’s race that his relationship with the Virginia paperclip is a love/hate deal. Sometimes he really likes the flat, half-mile track, at other times, not so much.
Right now, Bowyer is in love with Martinsville. That’s probably because he battled for victory last October before finishing third. In last year’s spring race, Bowyer drove the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) Ford to a seventh-place finish.
But, he hasn’t always been a fan of the place.
“When I first raced there, I was terrible, I hated it – every aspect of it,” Bowyer said with a laugh. “Now, we feel pretty good about our Martinsville program. We had two pretty good runs last year and we’re pretty pumped about going there this weekend. We aren’t going to be happy until we bring home a grandfather clock.”
Bowyer has come close at Martinsville, but he’s yet to add a clock to his trophy case. He owns five top-five finishes and 14 top-10s and has led 356 laps on Martinsville’s concrete surface. He led 154 laps during the fall 2012 race amid a string of five consecutive top-10s there.
Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, Bowyer ran in the top-10 most of the race until a tire problem in the final laps left him with an 11th-place finish. Bowyer is ninth in points heading to the Cup Series’ first short-track race of the season. SHR arrives at Martinsville on a historic roll with all four drivers in the top-11 in the standings.
While he’s feeling good heading into this weekend, Bowyer knows there’s always the fickle nature of Martinsville that could turn him back toward not liking the place. But, he said that’s part of the track’s allure to fans and television viewers and a welcome relief from the high-speed, aerodynamic-dependent tracks the series has visited thus far in 2018.
“This type of racing is what put this sport on the map, and it’s been a while since we’ve been that, and it’s a breath of fresh air to get back to a short track where it can breed some of that and put on a show for the fans,” said Bowyer, who makes his 439th career start Sunday. “I know I was entertained by the racing last year and I expect we’ll see the same thing again this weekend.”
His SHR teammate who’s also off to a great start to 2018, feels the exact same way. Aric Almirola has run well at Martinsville in the past, but he’s also been off too. He describes racing on the short track the same way as Bowyer.
“I really look forward to going to Martinsville,” said Almirola. :Every time we go there, it’s just fun racing. It’s a love-hate relationship with Martinsville Speedway because it’s tight quarters and it’s easy to get frustrated. You kind of beat and bang with all of your competitors but it’s so cool. It’s one of the coolest places to watch a race, as well. I’m excited, it’s my 250th Cup start. Who would’ve ever thought I’d actually be in the series that long? I know I didn’t. It’s going to be a fun weekend.”
Martinsville is a historically good track for the Kannapolis, North Carolina-based organization. SHR owns three victories – Ryan Newman in April 2012, Tony Stewart in October 2011 and Kurt Busch in March 2014 – eight top-five finishes and 20 top-10s in 54 starts at Martinsville, and SHR cars have led 504 laps there.