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NASCAR DFS: Cook Out 400 Preview

NASCAR continues its short-track portion of the schedule with a brief trip to Martinsville Speedway. Martinsville may not look like much, but it holds plenty of lore. For starters, the winner at Martinsville is gifted a seven-foot-tall grandfather clock. On top of that, Martinsville is just a half-mile track and incredibly flat. This is also the location for the penultimate race before the Cup Series Championship in Phoenix. Martinsville has also been on NASCAR’s schedule since 1949. It’s truly an “oldie but a goodie.” It’s certainly a track where you can lose the lead lap easily given the nature of the track and this style of racing. You can’t afford a mistake at Martinsville. We’ll have 400 laps so the dominator points weigh heavily once again. Here are the top drivers for this week’s NASCAR DFS Cook Out 400 preview.

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Cook Out 400 Preview: The Top Plays

Denny Hamlin (#11 Toyota)

Fresh off a win at Richmond, where he didn’t even have the best car, we go back to the well with Hamlin. Denny led off last week’s NASCAR DFS preview for Richmond. A lot of what was mentioned last week can be applied once again. Martinsville doesn’t have the tire wear of Richmond. However, it’s short at just a half-mile in length and incredibly flat. It’s been nearly nine years since Hamlin won at Martinsville. Nevertheless, he’s still going to carry win equity. In the NextGen era, he has three top-five finishes in four races while having led 395 laps across four races here. In his career, he has five wins at Martinsville with 19 top-five finishes in 36 races. We should once again expect Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing to contend on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. (#19 Toyota)

Full disclosure, I’m leading the Top Plays section of the Cook Out 400 preview with three JGR drivers. MTJ arguably had the best car at Richmond on Sunday night. He led 228 laps last week with 43 fastest laps and once again, MTJ at Richmond under the lights was outstanding. Rightfully so, he was upset at the way the Toyota Owners 400 ended. Hell hath no fury like a scorned MTJ heading into MARTINsville after all. His results in the NextGen era haven’t been all that great at the paperclip. 2022 was a struggle overall as the Toyotas took nearly half the season to figure out this car. But he led 47 laps here last fall while finishing 12th and he was third in this race a year ago. MTJ should be focused and poised to take home his fourth grandfather clock this weekend.

Christopher Bell (#20 Toyota)

Like I said, we’re leaning on the Joe Gibbs Racing cars to lead off this week’s Cook Out 400 preview. Bell and MTJ have arguably been the class of the field in the short track package and on the shorter, flat tracks. Sure, Hamlin won last week’s race. But we also know he didn’t have the best car. Bell started P29 at Richmond and finished sixth. He only led nine laps but had 36 fastest laps. So the pure speed was clearly there in the car. Bell already grabbed a win at Phoenix last month and he has a win on his resume at Martinsville from the fall of 2022 where he led 150 laps. Multi-dominator builds are the key to DFS success at Martinsville. We’ll likely see plenty of builds showcasing at least two JGR drivers.

Cook Out 400 Preview: Wouldn’t Bet Against Them

Joey Logano (#22 Ford)

At a track like Martinsville, Logano may not carry as much win equity as the Toyotas. However, he’s consistent here. Similar to Richmond, his results are solid. He even finished second last week for the Toyota Owners 400. At Martinsville in the NextGen Era, Logano hasn’t finished worse than sixth. As a matter of fact, he’s finished second in each of the last two Spring races here. In the Fall he’s finished fifth and sixth. So there’s plenty of top-five potential. Logano is as solid as they come and even if he’s lacking speed in practice or qualifying, the results still speak for themselves.

Chase Elliott (#9 Chevrolet)

I’m sure William Byron and Kyle Larson will get into the mix somehow. But Elliott is a good driver to feature in this dark horse section. Elliott does have a win on his resume at Martinsville from the fall of 2020 on his way to his Cup Series championship. The results in his NextGen car have been rather ho-hum. He has an average finish of about 12th in his last four races here. But last fall, he did lead 83 laps. In total, he’s led 322 laps in the NextGen era, and if we expand the sample size to his last seven races at Martinsville, he’s led 847 laps. He’s coming off his first top five finish of the season and he seems like he’s getting closer and closer to regaining his championship form.

Bubba Wallace (#23 Toyota)

Wallace is a highly intriguing play this week. I don’t typically like playing Bubba on road courses or short tracks. He’s a superspeedway specialist and he’s been solid on intermediates as well. He started P5 last week at Richmond and ultimately finished 13th. But early on he was running second in the first stage and had speed. Unfortunately, other cars got better as the race progressed. He still managed to log 20 fastest laps despite only leading two. He still has the valuable Toyota affiliation for our third short, flat track in four weeks. He’s finished 11th or better in the last three races at Martinsville and he’s always working on his craft to get better. Even if he qualifies well, he could be worth some exposure in tournaments.

The Sleepers and Values

Noah Gragson (#10 Ford)

So far this year, we’ve seen Gragson succeed at the tracks Aric Almirola was strong at. We’ve seen him finish 12th at both Phoenix and Richmond. That comes less than a year after Almirola finished 13th at Richmond-1, eighth at Richmond-2, and 13th at Phoenix in the Championship race. Moreover, last year Almirola finished sixth and second at the two Martinsville races and he led 66 laps in the fall race. Gragson’s team has done well to match the setups from a year ago and he’s had success with four top-12 finishes already this year. Gragson ran Martinsville five times in the Xfinity Series. He led double-digit laps in all five races, grabbed four top-five finishes, and a win back in 2021.

Ryan Preece (#41 Ford)

The SHR drivers are going to be trendy, affordable plays this week. Josh Berry was running top-five for a lot of last week’s race. Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson grabbed top 20 finishes as well. Preece may be the low man on the totem pole. He finished 28th at Richmond so he’s left a sour taste in most mouths. Nevertheless, he comes from a short-track background. Preece grabbed a pair of top-20 finishes last year at Martinsville. But they don’t look good when you consider he started on the pole for one race and ninth in the other. But he led 135 laps in this race last year and in the fall he was top 10 through the first two stages. Given that the other SHR drivers are a bit more trendy, we should keep Preece on our radar.

Austin Dillon (#3 Chevrolet)

The Cook Out 400 preview is starting to look like last week’s preview for Richmond, isn’t it? So Dillon had an appearance in last week’s preview. Obviously, it didn’t pan out. He was voicing his frustrations with the setup and strategy early in Sunday’s race. Changes took shape on Tuesday. Dillon is going forward with a new crew chief in Justin Alexander and a new engineer in Joel Keller. Alexander enters his third stint as the crew chief for Austin Dillon. Alexander was the crew chief for all four of Dillon’s wins in the Cup Series. Dillon finished 12th and third in the two spring races at Martinsville in the NextGen car. Dillon has plenty of other top 15 finishes at Martinsville including a couple of other top fives throughout his career. I feel a little more confident in him this week with a familiar crew chief and new engineer.

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