After dominating the first half of the race, Chase Elliott came home with a disappointing 10th place finish in Saturday’s Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway.
Elliott looked like the car to beat at the start, as he led the first 185 laps and won the first two stages in the process. However, after losing the pit road lead to William Byron after the second stage, Elliott struggled to maintain his commanding pace and slowly faded out of contention for the rest of the night.
Elliott started from pole and showed no intention of looking back. He led the most laps to start a Martinsville race since Darrell Waltrip in 1980, but teammate William Byron held a striking distance the entire time. The two Hendrick Motorsports drivers showed from the start that they were the class of the field, and the race was shaping up to be a battle between them.
Even after giving up the lead to Byron, Elliott still showed he had the speed to challenge Byron for the win. The surprisingly tame race’s long green-flag runs played directly into Elliott’s advantage, as he showed speed on the long runs during the first two stages.
But in the later stretches of the race, even when Elliott seemed to be putting up fast laps, he never managed to turn it into a pass for position.
Elliott slowly descended through the field before a slow pit stop on Lap 313 dropped him completely out of the top 10 from fifth place. When Elliott found himself stuck in the top 15 again with a much quicker car, he barely managed to squeeze his way through. the top 10 before Todd Gilliland’s caution late in the race pushed the field back.
Elliott’s inability to pass seemed quite disconcerting at first, especially after seeing how fast his car was. Rather, the inability to pass seemed to be the theme of the entire field on Saturday night, which is extremely uncharacteristic for Martinsville. After the track featured some dramatic and action-packed Truck and Xfinity Series racing earlier in the weekend, the new Gen 7 Cup cars battled to even be two wide of each other when jockeying for position.
While the Gen 7 car clearly played a part in the lack of competition, the low temperatures made it difficult for the track to build up rubber. These problems compounded to make passing virtually impossible for drivers, and Elliott’s struggles highlighted the magnitude of the problem.
Elliott managed to move up to eighth on the final restart before losing position to ultimately end the night in tenth place. However, his struggles speak to the growing pains the new car is experiencing from a competition standpoint. If the fastest car for most of the weekend — and with a driver who previously won at the track — can’t overtake, it shows how difficult it was for each driver to pass at the .526-mile track.
From his blazing fast lap in qualifying to his dominance of the first two stages, the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott proved he had a race-winning car at Martinsville. However, the inability of his pit crew to position him on the track struck once again, but this time it was in a race where track position meant everything.
As the new Gen 7 car continues to evolve and develop its identity and nuances, expect NASCAR to make the changes to bring short-track racing back to its competitive reputation.
Until then, Elliott’s night in Martinsville will be remembered for what it could have been. His slow disappearance seemed almost out of his control, but he paid the price anyway.
Still, there were some significant results in the race overall from a team perspective. First, Hendrick Motorsports led 98.5 percent of the laps (397 of 403), the highest percentage ever led by the team in a single race, according to Racing Insights.
And something else that probably brought a big smile to team owner Rick Hendrick is the following accomplishment:
Elliott remains the only Hendrick driver without a win this season, but he held the points lead by a three-point margin over Ryan Blaney as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Bristol for the always-unpredictable gravel race next Sunday.
With so many unknowns about how the new car will run on dirt, it should be fun to see how Elliott and the rest of the field perform.
Follow Austin Dickey on Twitter @AustinIsWriting