MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - APRIL 15: Ryan Preece, driver of the #41 Ford, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 15, 2023 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images
MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - APRIL 15: Ryan Preece, driver of the #41 Ford, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 15, 2023 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Ryan Preece captures first career pole at Martinsville

On his final lap – the final lap of qualifying Saturday afternoon – Stewart-Haas Racing’s Ryan Preece topped the competition to earn his first career NASCAR Cup Series Busch pole award with a lap of 94.779 mph in his No. 41 SHR Ford at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

The 32-year old Connecticut driver Preece is the 14th driver to notch his first pole position at the .526-mile Virginia track. He’ll start alongside Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suárez on the front row for Sunday’s NOCO 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Suárez and Preece’s SHR teammate Aric Almirola turned the exact same lap time – down to a thousandth of a second (20.081), but Suárez got the front row start by virtue of team points.

“I was fighting loose that first lap,’’ Preece said with a smile, adding, “It’s a pole not a race.

“So I guess from a company standpoint it makes us all very optimistic for tomorrow, and can to just be smart and we can have good days. It certainly shows that our short track program is really good and I know our superspeedway program has been extremely good too and we’ll keep working on that.’’

Of note, Preece has won a pole in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series – and he won both those races (at Iowa in 2017 and at Nashville in 2022, respectively).

“Hopefully I can do a good job and keep those statistics going.”

Almirola will start on the second row alongside his Stewart-Haas teammate Chase Briscoe – all four SHR cars advanced to the final round of qualifying. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. and 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick will start on the third row, followed by SHR’s Kevin Harvick and defending race winner, Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron. 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace and Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing’s Chris Buescher round out the top 10.

As with Stewart-Haas, the 23XI Racing team batted a thousand in qualifying – pushing both its cars into the final round.

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott will roll off 24th in his first race back from injury. The former Martinsville winner broke his leg six weeks ago and is marking his return to the seat of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this weekend.

“Felt pretty good, but abysmal qualifying lap and I can’t really blame my leg on that one,’’ Elliott said. “I had a pretty good first lap and then really messed up in [Turn] two on the second one. Judging off of practice, starting in the back is going to be a lot of fun, looking forward to that in the ole’ NAPA Chevy.”

Of his comfort level, Elliott said, “I feel fine in the car. My entire practice run I felt fine and once you kind of get out there on the track and start focusing on the little things that you need to be doing in your car, some of that goes away so that’s a good thing. My qualifying lap wasn’t because of that, just a poor effort.’’

The current NASCAR Cup Series championship leader Christopher Bell will roll off 22nd in the No. 20 JGR Toyota. His teammate, Ty Gibbs was the fastest rookie, qualifying 12th in the No. 54 JGR Toyota.

Chase Elliott Returns

Elliott’s competitors say while they are glad to have the sport’s Most Popular Driver back on the grid this weekend after a six-week absence to mend a broken leg, they also expect it to be a real test physically for the 27-year old former series champ.

One of the drivers who spoke with Elliott during his recovery particularly understands the challenges. Veteran Kyle Busch broke his leg in a crash in the 2015 Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway – the day before the DAYTONA 500. Busch suffered a break in his right leg and left foot. He went on to miss the opening 11 races of the season but still returned to win five races and his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.

“We just talked a little bit back and forth about my experience of my injury and what my stuff was like,’’ Busch said Saturday before Busch Light Pole Qualifying at Martinsville. “Everybody’s injuries are different, but my leg injury was different than his leg injury. It was actual more similar to my foot, where I had plates and screws in my foot.

“It was not always the easiest to endure a race with the left foot braking and all that sort of stuff. His is more knee and joint related. If he runs the whole race, he’s going to be sore afterwards. It’s just not easy to jump right back in and go. Even in my fifth week when I won at Sonoma (road course race), I couldn’t walk afterwards, it hurt so bad.

“Welcome him back though. It’s great to have him back. I think a lot of fans missed him and want to see him back in the car.’’

Elliott sure didn’t look like his injury slowed him down much judging from his first laps out in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He was 10th fastest in practice and the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion and reigning Most Popular Driver was optimistic about coming back to compete this weekend.

“I think you have to step back and look at the situation,’’ said Elliott, who broke the tibia in his left leg while snowboarding in March.

“I think everybody needs to recognize that I wouldn’t go this weekend if I didn’t feel like I could do it. Ultimately that’s my decision. The doctors and I have been in conversations the whole time really, and we just feel like I’m to a point now where the integrity of the bone is to a point where I’m not going to hurt it in that matter.

“It’s about building that strength back and getting to a point where you’re comfortable with your range of motion and things of that nature to get in there and do a good job and I feel like this is the right week to do it.’’

Chastain Returns to Memorable Martinsville

Ross Chastain is returning to the track that essentially made him a household name for NASCAR fans. Last October he rode the wall on the last lap of the championship-qualifying race here and passed five cars in the final corner to earn a position in the Championship Four season finale.

Since then the Florida watermelon farmer has been celebrated for that dramatic and fateful move in the race – something he’s appreciated. But the soft-spoken driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet says he’s much more concerned with the present than the past – and ready to win his first race of 2023.

What’s it like being back at Martinsville for the first race since then?

“It’s different, but that was a life-changing moment for myself and my team, everybody around me and we’ll continue to feel the benefits of that for years to come,’’ said Chastain, who will start the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet 34th on Sunday.

“That doesn’t take anything away from the competition though. This place has humbled me for a decade through the (CRAFTSMAN) Truck Series, Xfinity and Cup and continued to do that yesterday in the truck race. So as much as it’s cool and awesome and we have a piece of the wall – I don’t think any other driver has been able to take a piece of the wall home – still it doesn’t help with lap time.”

Jimmie Johnson to Join National Motorsports Hall of Fame

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has been selected to the National Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s 2024 induction class, the hall announced Friday.

The 47-year old, 84-race winner and current owner of the NASCAR Cup Series’ Legacy Motor Club team will be NASCAR’s representative in the induction ceremonies next March joining esteemed fellow nominees such as his former Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar series teammate Scott Dixon along with Jim Downing and Dr. Robert Hubbard, creators of the HANS device.

“It’s an incredible honor to be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America,” Johnson said. “I’ve been fortunate throughout my racing career to be honored in many ways and to be recognized in this capacity is really humbling.

“I took part in the induction ceremonies of Tony Stewart in 2019 and my childhood mentor Ricky Johnson in 2012, so to be added to this elite group of individuals – by the equally impressive voting panel – is really special. I’m so thankful.’’

His friend and fellow Hall inductee Tony Stewart was especially proud to see Johnson get the nod.

“I think the world of him anyway,’’ Stewart said, “I always tell him when I grow up I want to be him and there’s an element of truth to that. There’s no one that’s done all he’s done with the amount of class and charisma that Jimmie has.

“No one has left a mark like Jimmie Johnson in this era. There’s no one more deserving than Jimmie.’’

— NASCAR Wire Service —