Unheralded rookie Tommy Joe Martins fastest in second Nationwide practice at ‘Dega; Jeffrey Earnhardt second-fast

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Nationwide Series rookie Tommy Joe Martins will have one heck of a story to tell his children and grandchildren one day.

The Como, Miss., native, who drives for his family’s Martins Motorsports, will be able to regale his heirs with the tale of how for at least one practice session, he was the fastest NNS driver at one of the most challenging tracks there is, Talladega SuperSpeedway.

Martins covered the 2.66-mile track, NASCAR’s largest oval, at a field-best 185.891 mph, the fastest speed in the second of Thursday’s two Nationwide Series practice sessions for Saturday’s Aaron’s 312.

Another surprise at second-fastest was Jeffrey Earnhardt, grandson of the late Dale Earnhardt, who was just .014 behind Martins at 185.877 mph.

Third-fastest was Kyle Larson (185.823 mph), followed by Trevor Bayne (185.226), who was fastest in Thursday’s first practice session (and at more than 5 mph faster at 190.378 mph).

Fifth-fastest was Brendan Gaughan (185.136), while sixth- through 10th-fastest were Ryan Sieg (185.122), Brian Scott (185.097), John Wes Townley (184.455), Dakoda Armstrong (184.242) and Josh Wise (183.561).

One of the other big surprises – actually, more of a shock, given he’s already won two NNS races this season – was series points leader Chase Elliott, who was just 26th-fastest at just 175.748 mph. In the earlier afternoon practice session, Elliott was 19th-fastest at 184.573 mph.

Only 29 drivers took to the track for the latter afternoon practice (compared to 36 drivers who practiced in the earlier afternoon session).

Thus far this season, Martins has qualified and raced in five of the first eight NNS races, with his best finish being 30th three weeks ago at Darlington. It was also the only race he’s finished this season, albeit six laps behind the leaders.

Martins, who is ranked 30th in the NNS standings coming into Saturday’s race, has recorded DNFs in the four other races he’s competed in this season.

He did not enter the season-opening event at Daytona and withdrew from both Phoenix and Bristol.

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Penske won’t discuss if Castroneves returns to Indy in 2020

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
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INDIANAPOLIS – NBC Sports.com asked Indianapolis 500 winning team owner Roger Penske if three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves would return to the team in 2020?

Penske immediately brushed off the question.

“We’re not going to talk about that right now,” Penske told NBC Sports.com. “I’m just not going to talk about it. We’re going to have a meeting about it before we decide, but I’m not going to talk about that right now.

“Simon won the race and that is what I’m focused on right now.”

Simon Pagenaud, gave Penske a record-extending 18thIndy 500 win on Sunday. Penske confirmed that Pagenaud will be back with the team in 2020 after he scored his first win in Sunday’s 103rdIndianapolis 500.

Castroneves was an NTT IndyCar Series regular at Team Penske from 2000 until the 2017 season. After that, Castroneves was shifted over to the team’s Acura IMSA Sports Car program, but the three-time Indy 500 winner was given a ride at both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past two years.

The popular driver from Brazil is trying to join AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time Indy 500 winners.

But the whispers in Gasoline Alley indicate his future with Team Penske at Indy remain uncertain.

“I’ve heard the rumors, too,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com on pit lane after his disappointing finish in the Indy 500. “I will definitely give it a good, hard think about coming back in 2020. I want to be the rest of the season, here.”

But, will Castroneves run the Indy 500 again?

“Who knows?” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com. “Let’s see what happens.”

Castroneves’s bid for a fourth Indianapolis 500 was derailed in a pit road incident after his first pit stop when he ran into James Davison’s Chevrolet on the team’s first pit stop on Lap 30.

The front wing of Castroneves’s Chevrolet was damaged and INDYCAR officials gave him a “Drive Through” penalty for “Avoidable Contact.” Castroneves would ultimate drop three laps down but finished one lap down in 18thplace.

Castroneves explained what happened to him earlier in the race and how it affected the rest of his Indy 500.

“The accident that happened in the pits hurt us for sure,” Castroneves explained. “We had a problem with the fuel mapping, and I couldn’t go over 200 miles an hour for four or five laps. We lost 35 seconds. There was a bug in the system.

“Then, we went back out and that was it. I wasn’t able to recoup after that. I was excited. The car was very, very good entering the race.”

Castroneves spoke with second-place finisher Alexander Rossi, who was furious with the driver from Brazil earlier in the race for not moving out of the way, even though he was three laps down at the time.

The two drivers hugged, and Castroneves walked back up pit lane.

“I did what the team told me to do, and they told me to go as fast as I could,” Castroneves explained after talking to Rossi. “It’s racing and everybody is upset they didn’t win.”

Castroneves hopes his walk up pit lane is not the final time as an Indy 500 competitor.

But it could be.

“I hope I can come back next year,” Castroneves said. “I’m really upset as a competitor, but extremely happy for Team Penske and for Simon Pagenaud for winning the race.

“The good news is I go back to the Acura sports car, but I will be dreaming about coming back here again.”