3 Cup Series Drivers Who Are Hot and 3 Who Are Not: Martinsville Race Week Edition
After one, and thankfully only one, week on the dirt, it’s back to asphalt racing this weekend for the Cup Series as NASCAR’s top division roars into its shortest track — .526-mile Martinsville Speedway in rural Ridgeway, Virginia.
Before the engines fire on Sunday afternoon, here’s one NASCAR writer’s hot take on three drivers who are hot and three more who are not after the first eight races of the 2023 season.
Hot: Christopher Bell
The Christopher Bell train just keeps on rolling. After posting four finishes of sixth or better in the previous five races, Bell continued his frontrunning ways on the Bristol dirt this past weekend. Only this time, he went to Victory Lane — after leading 100 of 250 laps.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver now heads to Martinsville, where he’s the most recent Cup Series winner, having triumphed in last fall’s Round of 8 elimination race to punch a ticket to the Championship 4. Although Cup Series cars will be equipped with a different aero package than the one they used in late October, Bell remains confident about the speed he’ll have in his No. 20 Toyota.
“I feel good about going back to Martinsville,” Bell said during the recorded post-race winner’s press conference at Bristol. “It’s going to be certainly different with the low downforce package. But it’s different for everybody. I feel like we were the best car there in the fall, so, hopefully, we can do our homework and make sure to study the differences between Richmond and Phoenix with the low downforce package and what we expect at Martinsville.”
Hot: Tyler Reddick
Outside of an outlier 16th-place two weekends ago on the short track at Richmond, Tyler Reddick has been downright stellar over the last month and change.
Coming into Sunday’s race at Martinsville, the first-year driver for 23XI Racing has recorded four top-fives in his last five starts, including a runner-up finish on the Bristol dirt track last weekend and a victory two weeks prior at the Circuit of The Americas road course in Austin, Texas.
Reddick, who’s already clinched a berth in the playoffs by virtue of his win at COTA, seems poised to have a year on par with — or perhaps even better than — last season, when he captured the first three wins of his Cup career in what would be the last of three Cup Series seasons with Richard Childress Racing.
Hot: Ty Gibbs
Another race, another top-10 finish for Ty Gibbs. With a 10th-place finish on the Bristol dirt Sunday night, that’s four top-10s in a row now for the rookie driver who moved to the Cup Series with his grandfather’s team this season after winning seven races and the Xfinity Series championship last year for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now Gibbs gets to return to Martinsville, the track where he won in controversial fashion last fall when he booted then-teammate Brandon Jones out of the way in turns 1 and 2 on the final lap of the Xfinity Series’ Round of 8 elimination race.
The next weekend, 20-year-old Gibbs drove a clean race at Phoenix to take the win and the championship — putting the perfect bow on an all-around stellar campaign in NASCAR’s No. 2 division. Could Sunday’s race at Martinsville give Gibbs his first top-five finish, or maybe even a win, at the Cup level? Stay tuned.
Not: AJ Allmendinger
Back in the Cup Series full-time for the first time since 2018, veteran AJ Allmendinger hasn’t exactly enjoyed the most wonderful homecoming.
With eight races in the books, Allmendinger has just one top-15 finish — a sixth-place result in the season opener at Daytona. Beyond that, his best showing is a pair of 16th-place outcomes at Atlanta and the Bristol dirt track.
No wonder he’s 25th in the standings, well back of the cutoff for making the playoffs.
Not: Denny Hamlin
No matter how you slice it, 2023 has been a rough ride so far for Denny Hamlin. While being hit with a 25-point penalty from NASCAR for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain at Phoenix certainly didn’t help matters, the more concerning issue for Hamlin has been his inability to run near the front with any degree of consistency.
The veteran driver for Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t posted a top-five all year, and his only top-10s — both sixth-place finishes — came at Auto Club Speedway way back in February and last month at Atlanta.
Hamlin’s lack of consistency, coupled with the 25-point penalty, have him 12th in the standings — not terrible, but far from where the 48-time Cup Series race winner is accustomed to being. If there’s any good news for Hamlin, it’s that he’ll still be one of the favorites to go to Victory Lane Sunday at Martinsville, where he owns five career wins.
Not: Ryan Blaney
It’s been an ugly past three weeks for Ryan Blaney, whose best finish in as many outings was a 21st-place showing at Circuit of The Americas. The Team Penske driver finished 23rd Sunday at the Bristol dirt track after a late-race spin cost him a possible win and an almost certain top-five finish.
Blaney hasn’t led a lap since the Atlanta race on March 19, when he went on to finish seventh.
Since then, Blaney has fallen from sixth to 13th in the standings and appears to possibly be sailing toward another season of mediocrity — his MO since joining NASCAR’s premier division full-time in 2016.