CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Of all the places Hendrick Motorsports could have picked for Chase Elliott’s first Sprint Cup Series race, the organization landed on historic Martinsville Speedway.
The Virginia race track has hosted so much Hendrick success – the organization has 22 Cup wins at Martinsville – but is also a place of tremendous tragedy: In 2004, a Hendrick plane crashed en route to the track, killing all 10 on board.
The history of Martinsville and the place it holds in Hendrick lore is not lost on Elliott, who will turn his first real laps in a Cup car Friday. The 19-year-old will have to qualify on speed to make Sunday’s race.
“The Hendrick history at Martinsville, that’s something that will never be forgotten,” Elliott said. “That’s such a special place for HMS, they’ve had a lot of success there, and it’s a place that everyone always wants to step up and do well at, and they certainly have done that as an organization, no matter who is driving.”
Elliott will drive the No. 25 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet for Hendrick. It’s the first of five races he has scheduled this season as he prepares to transition from reigning Xfinity Series champion to the replacement driver for four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon. Elliott in January was picked to replace Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet when Gordon retires at the end of this season.
The Hendrick affinity for Martinsville aside, on paper the track might seem a curious choice for Elliott’s first Cup event.
He has very little experience at the track – just two Truck Series races in 2013 – and the odd paper-clip layout with its long straightaways and flat, narrow turns makes it a challenge for drivers.
Elliott isn’t sure how his schedule was set by the Hendrick braintrust, but isn’t complaining. He always enjoyed watching races at Martinsville, and at just .526 of a mile, the length suits him.
“I kind of look at it as it’s just a short track,” said Elliott, who prepared for NASCAR racing short tracks across the Southeast.
“I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of short-track racing over the last several years, and that place definitely has its differences from a lot of short tracks I raced in Florida and Georgia and North Carolina and Alabama. But at the same time, you are still short-track racing … you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. You still want to race with the same goals, and you are still going to be looking for the same things. The key is going to be to try to marry the excitement of the weekend and your first Cup attempt with the fact that you are still going short-track racing. That’s going to be important.”
UNCONTROLLED TIRE: Denny Hamlin made his overdue return to Auto Club Speedway last weekend and had a strong run until a late-race pit road penalty ruined his race.
Hamlin, who broke his back in a 2013 crash at the California track then missed last year’s race when he was not medically cleared to compete because of a piece of metal in his eye, led two times for 56 laps on Sunday. But he was penalized when his Joe Gibbs Racing crew lost control of a tire during a late pit stop, and the punishment contributed to his 28th-place finish.
Hamlin crew chief Dave Rogers argued vehemently with a NASCAR official over the call, but a television replay eventually showed the tire indeed did get away from the No. 11 crew.
Still, Rogers believed it was a subjective call on NASCAR’s part.
“I saw it on TV and certainly the right-front (tire) rolled away and out of our box a little bit,” Rogers said. “In years past, that would be a common sense rule and the tie goes to the (team).”
Rogers said teams were concerned with NASCAR’s new electronic monitoring of pit road, which debuted this season, because it removed any wiggle room in the rule book.
“NASCAR emphasized this offseason when we expressed our concerns over this system – black or white, ball or strike type of a deal,” Rogers said. “NASCAR assured us that they would use common sense and things wouldn’t change and I can certainly tell you that last year that wouldn’t have been called.
“I don’t know if it’s me getting used to a new system or NASCAR pushing harder for the ball or strike. It’s frustrating.”
FOX SPORTS-VIRTUAL REALITY: Fox Sports is exploring virtual reality with NextVR, a technology company that captures and delivers live and on-demand virtual reality experiences.
The network tested the experience last weekend at Auto Club Speedway in California, where NextVR enabled the live streaming of the race in virtual reality. NextVR’s software application, which is embedded in a mobile phone that is then connected to a Samsung Gear VR headset, enables viewers to experience the event as if they were there.
The footage was streamed to Fox Sports executives and producers working from the at-track television compound. Two cameras captured 180-degree and 360-degree views from an area on pit road and a second spot between the track and the pits.
“NextVR has spent the last six years perfecting their VR technology, which made them the logical first choice for Fox Sports to partner with for this test,” said Mike Davies, Fox Sports senior vice president of field operation. “NextVR currently is one of the only companies with the ability to transmit live in VR, and their technology is built on a broadcast platform, making it infinitely scalable.”