LAS VEGAS – The NASCAR Xfinity Series had a wild showing for the 2021 Alsco Uniforms 302, including stories like Josh Berry earning his second victory of the season as a part-time driver, trouble for various Playoff drivers and the “Big One” at a 1.5 mile oval.
But when you look through the field and notice other names not in yellow, you’ll see drivers like Ty Dillon, Ty Gibbs, Brett Moffitt, and Bayley Currey earning top-10 and top-15 finishes. Another driver who needed a strong run was owner-driver Tommy Joe Martins with a 14th place effort on the night, and it surely did not come easy.
“Struggled early,” Martins shared after the race. “Really probably fired off really loose with the sun on the track there but kind of that went down and got better for us. Yeah, I mean, it was to the point that in the first 25 laps of the race, we were on the verge of going a lap down. Then we were able to kinda rebound there with some speed in the second stage and it just got better from there. And that competition caution and obviously dodging that wreck right after that. That was big, so many good cars got taken out in that.
“I know we would have been competitive with several of them over the course of the run like we had been all year but definitely missing that wreck was the big part of what set us up for a big night.”
The 34-year old was right. The “Big One” – usually seen at superspeedway races such as Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, which is next on the Xfinity schedule – had a dozen cars involved and ended the day for Playoff drivers such as Riley Herbst, Jeb Burton and Jeremy Clements. Berry snuck through the middle and was logged as officially being one of the cars involved, and Martins took a hard left to sneak past on the apron just as the cars started to scatter across the surface of Turn 1. With the weekend being at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, sometimes having a little luck on your side is all you need, and luckily they chose the bottom lane to give themselves that extra maneuverability.
“When the wreck first happens,” Martins explained. “Where everybody’s going to eventually wind up is back up towards the top of the racetrack. Luckily we had chosen the bottom on a restart there so it gave us a little bit of escapability, diving on the bottom. So I just hung a left when I saw it all happening. Watching a replay of it, we got through, they’re pretty free and clear. I know a lot of other guys were kind of in the middle row or on the high side and I think they didn’t really have much opportunity to get out of it. It seemed like it swept everybody up almost like a Talladega wreck.”
That is something that crosses the minds of spotters and drivers. With NASCAR’s new “choose cone” rule, adopted by local short tracks, it allows teams to select the inside or the outside on restarts. This can be an advantage based on the handling, considering the amount of competitors ahead in a specific lane or sometimes anticipating big crashes. For Martins, it wasn’t necessarily anticipating a big wreck but having that low option was a big sigh of relief.
“Sure, I think that’s something we think about when we know it’s gonna be a pressure-packed restart, especially towards the end of the race. That’s something my spotter and I will talk about is having a little bit of escapability down the bottom.
“Really then I don’t think anybody expected that wreck to happen the way that it did and when it did. Being in the playoffs, you would think everybody will be a little bit smarter than that. I think Josh Berry, from watching the video there, was being pretty aggressive and obviously he’s just racing to try to go win the race, right? I think it was just a circumstance where some wires got crossed there. He made a move at the same time another guy was making a move and I just don’t think that Riley (Herbst) knew that he was in the middle of a four-wide deal there.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened. I mean, you don’t see that many good cars taken out but is it something that we think about? Yeah, it’s a conversation but I wouldn’t say at that moment we were thinking there could be a big wreck on this restart. We went with the shorter lane there, which is depending here on strategy a little bit. It looked like both lanes were pretty even from what I could tell on the restarts. I feel like when I was on the top or the bottom that I had just a natural advantage in (Turn) one.”
In past weekends, the No. 44 Market Rebellion Chevrolet Camaro hasn’t seen the best of luck. A couple of DNF’s and a mishandling car at Bristol Motor Speedway dug themselves into a hole approaching the end of the season. The top-15 run shifted gears into what he hopes will be good momentum to close out 2021 into a bright future of changes next season.
“Bristol was a big race for our sponsors too, as that was their home race,” said Martins. “So it was a real let down. Basically for the last month, we’ve been miserable.”
Martins keeps it real but hopeful for a solid 2022 season. After what will be his second full-time season, Martins will switch to part-time driving and open the seat to others, including Caesar Bacarella and newly signed prospect Rajah Caruth, one of the strongest names coming from the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program. Bacarella is slated to drive the superspeedway races and at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his home track. Caruth has a bit more variety on his schedule, including Martinsville Speedway, Dover International and Richmond Raceway with a possibility of Kansas Speedway and Pocono Raceway. Martins also shared with Kickin’ the Tires that he hopes to announce another driver shortly.
“Caesar runs in a Lamborghini GT3 Series. He’s going to get plenty of racing, just not a lot in a stock car. Rajah has got five races with us as well. My plan is to run about ten races. We have another driver that we’re planning on announcing in the next month that we think is going to be a really a good road course specialist for us. Really excited to have him and then really, it’s about closing out our year one more driver that’s probably gonna run those remaining 8-12 races on our schedule.”
But when looking at the team from an owner standpoint, the reality of staying competitive is tough. Martins knows that as teams grow, evolve, gain more sponsorship and partnerships, keeping up with his group of B-plan teams will only get tougher. He’s confident he has the right people at the right time to help accomplish his goals.
“I think the part of our field that we are in – that second group with these B-teams in our series with Ryan Sieg, Jeremy Clements and Brandon Brown – I think we put ourselves in that conversation now as a Playoff team (after seeing Clements qualify for this year’s Playoffs). Our goals are to stay in the top 20 in the owners points all year. That’s our goal and that’s tough. You’re beating a lot of really good teams if you’re doing that.”
Racing against quality teams each and every week is tough indeed, let alone putting yourself in the mix for a Playoff spot. Martins looks to take his newly branded Alpha Prime Racing to the next level with the crew he’s bringing on board next season to showcase top-15 runs on a regular basis. And as for the hopes and possible rumors of running a second car, he simply says that’s not in the cards just yet.
“Caesar absolutely has an interest in running a second car, but we’re just being very practical about it.”