MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Prior to the start of Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville Speedway, the four-man Kyle Busch Motorsports fleet was confident in their chances of dominating the afternoon.
After all, they swept the top three starting spots and put all four entries into the final round of qualifying, but once the race began it was as if a light switch was flipped for the entire organization.
Though Todd Gilliland started from the pole and led the first 39 laps, once Gilliland pitted before the end of the first stage, none of the KBM drivers found their ways back to the front after that.
Gragson ended up as the highest-finishing of the quartet, coming home seventh, while Burton and Eckes trailed closely in eighth and ninth. Gilliland got stuck on the high side late in the race and finished 12th.
All four drivers had a unanimous assessment of the issue that kept them out of contention for the win: a very tight-handling truck after cloudcover rolled in mid-way through the race.
Gragson was at least somewhat optimistic following the race, after moving up to second in points and extending his gap over the elimination line to 24 points heading into the next series race at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 2.
“Overall, I feel like this was a good day for Kyle Busch Motorsports,” said Gragson. “We qualified one-two-three and wanted to run up there at the end, but we did what our goal was. I wish that the tires were worn more. I don’t like how this Ilmor motor is exiting the corner, where you can flat foot it. It’s like a restart at Daytona … and it doesn’t really go anywhere until about halfway down the straightaway.
“They need to figure out how to get more wheel spin into it. Either put more horsepower or … I don’t know if a harder tire is the key, because that’s going to mean even less tire wear,” he continued. “We just need something to give us less grip, so we can spin the tires off the corner … because that’s the only way you’re going to get passing back.”
Burton, on the other hand, battled a faulty oil pressure gauge all afternoon and rallied back from a late pit stop to capture his top-10 finish. The recently-turned 18-year-old overcame that set of challenges, but admitted afterwards that Saturday was one of the toughest Martinsville races he’s been through.
“This was a hard day,” Burton said. “I thought we were going to be really good after qualifying; I think we all did, really. Then once the race started, we just got tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter. The tires held together so well that new tires weren’t really worth a whole lot of speed the whole day. It was hard to gain track position once you lost it and it was really difficult to pass.
“I was a little surprised at how much the track changed from qualifying to the race; I guess it just rubbered up more and more and that had a lot to do with it,” added Burton. “Once we started to get deeper into the race, our strength was on entry through the center, and it’s hard to use that strength in traffic. I’m happy with the day, though. We came out of Martinsville in one piece and that’s important.”
Eckes finished ninth in a quiet performance for the 17-year-old, who recently announced he’ll run for the ARCA Racing Series championship next year with Venturini Motorsports.
“Our goal today was to be a little bit better, to be honest with you. I’ve had a lot of momentum with other series and we ran really well at Gateway as well,” said Eckes. “It’s a solid result, but I felt like we should have been a little better today. We’ll move on to Phoenix now and I’m looking forward to that.”
Then there was Gilliland, who climbed from his truck very disappointed after feeling like he “had a truck that could win the race” before the weather conditions changed and he began getting muscled around.
“Like Harrison said, I just got super tight,” noted Gilliland. “At the three-quarter mark in the corners, I just couldn’t do anything. The right-front tire had no grip. There are some positives we can take away from today, but we made adjustments and it really didn’t do anything to the truck. We were so slow at the end that I just couldn’t even get out of the way fast enough.
“This day started so promising, and I think that’s what makes it tough to swallow, because short tracks are what I should be best at and today wasn’t even close to that. We just have to get better.”
Johnny Sauter won Saturday’s event for GMS Racing after leading a race-high 148 of 200 laps.