Martinsville Update: Yellows, yellows everywhere

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The seventh race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Martinsville Speedway has been filled so far with caution periods, causing the race to take on a ragged sort of character during its first half.

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin only led the first two laps before Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson took the lead at Lap 3. Shortly afterwards, the caution came out at Lap 7 after Carl Edwards spun out Jeff Burton in Turn 3. The resulting stack-up also left some other cars with various bits of damage.

Johnson led the field down to the green for the restart at Lap 20, but on Lap 25, Kyle Busch got to the inside of Johnson and eventually cleared him to begin his turn at the point. Matt Kenseth soon followed his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate past Johnson for second position, and then on Lap 36, he rose to the lead over Busch.

Kenseth and the rest of the leaders began winding their way through lapped traffic just before Lap 50, and a rhythm was found with Kenseth ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Johnson and Jeff Gordon. As for Busch, he slipped back to fourth while Juan Pablo Montoya made his way into the Top 5 by Lap 80 after starting 13th.

On Lap 88, contact between Edwards and Travis Kvapil sent the latter spinning and would trigger a wave of pit stops under yellow. Kenseth was able to win the race off pit road and keep his lead, with Gordon, Johnson, Busch and Montoya following him out. All of them, as well as the entirety of the Top 10 coming to the restart at Lap 95, took four tires.

Kenseth quickly sped away from Johnson at the green, while Montoya leaped from fifth to third. But Busch dropped back to seventh before the field strung back out to largely single-file action.

However, Johnson would reel Kenseth back in and grabbed the lead at Lap 111 after taking Kenseth on the inside of Turn 1 and emerging from Turn 2 with the edge. Gordon would then take second from Kenseth, making for a Hendrick 1-2 at Lap 125.

Contact between Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann brought out the yellow again at Lap 140. The leaders once again returned to the pits for service, and Johnson managed to get out first to stay on top.

When the green returned at Lap 147, Johnson on the inside line was stronger than Montoya on the outside and got himself out front. Montoya also lost second and third after the restart to a resurgent Gordon and Kenseth.

A problem for Kyle Larson at Lap 166 slowed the race once more and presented another opportunity for pit stops to the leaders. Johnson once again came out first but with another Hendrick teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.,right behind him.

Burton did not pit under the yellow, allowing him to assume the lead for the restart at Lap 181. Johnson was able to get around Burton, but then a multi-car incident ensued in Turn 1 to force another yellow. Among those taking damage were Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Kasey Kahne, whose car needed to be pulled out of the grass between Turn 1 and 2.

Johnson and Kenseth quickly grabbed the top two spots off the restart at Lap 192, and left Montoya to fend for himself in third. But the yellow would come back again shortly after Lap 200 when Kurt Busch spun out in a Turn 3 battle with Jamie McMurray and then skidded into an oncoming Mark Martin.

The Top 8 stayed out under caution while Gordon led a group of cars to the pits at Lap 205. He would line up 13th for the restart at Lap 210, while Johnson, Kenseth and Montoya again stretched out their 1-2-3 position.

On Lap 217, Kenseth was able to get position on the inside of Johnson and take the advantage from the Chase leader. Another yellow for Kvapil at Lap 219 allowed Earnhardt, who had fallen outside of the Top 10, to come to pit road for service.

Kenseth was able to take the lead off the restart at Lap 223, while Montoya and Johnson fought each other for second behind him. Johnson would lose the battle as well as third and fourth spots before he finally settled to the inside line in fifth behind Joey Logano.

Another Reutimann spin triggered the yellow (stop us if this sounds like a broken record). Under this yellow, Johnson opted to go to the pits along with Kyle Busch and others. Kenseth and the rest of the lead pack stayed out, while Johnson was 16th at the Lap 236 restart.

Two laps later, Clint Bowyer worked his way around Kenseth for the point, and at Lap 250 of 500, he was the leader of the race.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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