Thursday, February 2, 2023

Tommy Joe Martins ‘In A Better Position Now’ Heading Into 100th Xfinity Series Start

Photo Credit: Daylon Barr / Barr Visuals

When Tommy Joe Martins takes the green flag on Saturday in NASCAR’s inaugural weekend at Circuit Of The Americas, he’ll achieve a personal milestone of 100 career NASCAR Xfinity Series starts.

To any race fan, that may not seem like such a big deal. But to Martins, it’s an emotional reminder of how far the 34-year-old has come in a career filled with personal obstacles.

“I didn’t think I would reach 10, to be completely honest,” Martins told “In the Xfinity Series, my family’s team started in 2014, and we were really, really, really bad – we really struggled. We were just completely in over our heads. We did start and parks… just did whatever we could to get to the next week.”

The Como, Mississippi driver piloted a No. 76 and No. 67 entry for 11 starts under the ownership of father Craig. Of those 11 starts, Martins often struggled to even make it to the halfway point in many of those races, with many DNF’s being contributed to a part failure. Only three times did Martins finish a race, and one of those three times was on the lead lap.

Seven years later, the tides have turned for Martins, now knocking on the door of the team’s first playoff berth as he sits inside the top 20 in the Xfinity Series points heading into COTA.

The Early Days Of Martins Motorsports

But the Mississippi driver has never been one to shy away from discussing the struggles of his rise into NASCAR. After Martins Motorsports got their first start in 2009, it was just one season later that Martins would have to hang his helmet up, thanks to a lack of funding. But his family always had their eyes on the Xfinity Series, regardless of the funding troubles that plagued the early steps of the team. Sure, other racing avenues were there to try and get back on track, but the return on investment just wasn’t there. The team, quite literally, was built from failure, but not from a lack of effort and intelligence.

As Martins explained, “I have a lot of respect for people who run late models, but that is a 100% losing proposition. You’re not going to make enough money in late model racing to make up the costs of what you are spending to build a top late model and do it. We always felt like with NASCAR that there was enough prize money that we can come up with ways to make it work on a little bit of a tighter budget. That’s always been something intriguing to me; I’ve always enjoyed the management aspect of things.”

The closure sent Martins back to Ole Miss to finish his academic career with a degree in journalism, which was far from a cop-out. Martins helped start the journalism program at his high school, with the original goal to become a commentator for racing and other sports. His skillset at Ole Miss was diverse as he spent time in radio, television, and writing for the school paper from opinion pieces to hard news.

“I felt like my knowledge in racing would help me lean into that, but obviously, racing was something I felt like I was pretty good at,” Martins said. “It was a hobby that accumulated into something more serious when I realized I had more talent than I expected.”

In 2017, Martins would find himself back into an Xfinity Series car after a three-year hiatus, joining B.J. McLeod Motorsports. It only took three starts with McLeod in the No. 78 to top his previous best finish of 14th, with an 11th at Iowa, finishing only three laps down. The return to the series marked a new beginning for Martins, who found himself back in a good place to continue building his NASCAR career. Working closely with McLeod and his own personal love for management, Martins began to soak in what BJMM was building.

The three seasons with McLeod gave Martins a front-row seat of how team owners can operate their organizations. One of the key lessons from his time comes down to the owners themselves. With every owner trying to achieve the same goals, there are different paths to get there. From tires to pit crew management, Martins grew frustrated with how things were operating at the team while understanding McLeod operating more cars with a smaller budget.

“I always felt like I could perform better, with a little more,” Martins remarked. “But I also saw what it took to do it the way that he was doing it, and I learned so, so much. B.J. specifically taught me a lot. I feel like he passed down an incredible amount of knowledge. Now, did I agree with all of it? I agreed with probably 85% of it; then the other 15% is what I am translating over here at Martins Motorsports.  ”

Martins recalled learning about the importance of not only the present race but the future. If a team didn’t have a backup car for a car racing two weeks in a row, this added more pressure to bring a good finish and keep the car in one piece.

Martins joined an interesting group of drivers, including Jeff Gordon, B.J. McLeod, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Denny Hamlin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., as drivers who own/manage an operation while competing for another organization. While helping to manage the Truck Series effort of a merger between Martins and AM Racing with Austin Wayne Self, Martins found his plate full from driving for McLeod and managing Self’s performance. Indeed stressful, Martins said it was some of the most fun he has had in the sport thus far. Taking notes from McLeod’s operation, Martins would manage one day and drive the next, and even doubling his duties on the same day in some cases.

While Martins enjoyed that time, it was challenging to keep his performance up to his own personal standards. With drivers being able to focus on running in a simulator, working out, and going over notes for the succeeding race, Martins had to focus his time elsewhere to keep not only his on-track ability strong but his family’s team. But with the financial obligations on Self and Martins being able to focus on managing the team, Martins said it “washed his hands” of the anxiety of finding the funds to rebuild the truck thanks to Self and his family bringing funding.

The Pieces Were There, But Not The Intent

After a brief stint with Carl Long and MBM Motorsports, Martins found himself with a unique but cautiously optimistic opportunity. After repeated failures of getting Martins Motorsports off the ground, the pieces were in place to revive the family racing name again and bring the results the team has worked effortlessly for. Many don’t know that there wasn’t any serious interest in starting a full-time Martins Motorsports Xfinity effort in the offseason. In fact, Martins said that he didn’t want to go down the road of driver/owner again.

The group at Martins Motorsports, including Martins’ father Craig and Rodney Riessen, began scouting new places for the Mississippi driver to head to after his time at McLeod’s operation was plagued with a lack of security for races. Martins wanted stability and guaranteed efforts for his career. Martins recalled several times when he received a call from McLeod’s team a few days before a race, asking to drive the car. The door was open for funded drivers, with Martins stepping in when needed. The lack of confirmed races made the sell hard for sponsors since Martins himself, at times, didn’t even know his future schedule.

Craig and Riessen paid for two cars to be built and presented Long with an offer that Martins would drive the car for the latter part of the 2019 season. The deal was agreed upon, with Martins telling that Long was happy with the decision because Martins was often time performing better than the MBM cars. Martins would also bring partnership with Diamond Gusset Jeans. With two of his own cars at MBM, the foundation was being placed.

“We knew that in the back of our mind that if this deal went south, we basically have the beginnings of a team,” Martins recalled.

It wasn’t until a serious primary sponsorship offer came through that Martins began to toy with the decision.

AAN Adjusters and Gilreath Farms stepped forward and practically pre-paid for the season for whatever Martins could put together for his own efforts, which originally was planned with Carl Long. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to pop up around the country, and the financial implications from the pandemic in NASCAR were still months away.

As Martins explained, “It was a huge, huge risk. That was a sponsor that I counted on to give me around 15 – 20 grand a year; that was all it was going to be. For them to really step up and basically help us launch the team, and then come back for season two. It was an incredible risk on their part, on a proven driver, but an unproven team.”

Upgrades, Upgrades, Upgrades

When NASCAR returned after a two-month hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the restart played into the favor of Martins. Additional partners, including Skyview and Market Rebellion, entered NASCAR, further helping their brands and the team grow and pushing towards a banner year.

The growth extends into today, with the team getting a nice shop upgrade in the offseason.

The building, owned by JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, had been occupied by two tenants. Martins has been in the same tiny space for the past half-decade. The half of Martins is only 3,000 square feet, with many occasions causing the team to shuffle shop equipment outside of the shop to make room for car setup, among other needs.

After the other tenant vacated the remaining space, Martins cut a deal with the building owners. In exchange for rent, upgrades to the property were to be provided by Martins Motorsports. The shop improvements are being spearheaded by Martin’s father and Riessen, who both have years of experience in the construction business. Martins plans to move into the second half of the building upon completion of the building, with setup being the primary focus of the remaining building space. Among the first steps was to upgrade the flooring, something Martins had his eyes on for some time.

Martins remains humble with the growth. He keeps track of everything from travel itinerary, positions position, engine packages and specific cars per race on a wall-sized chalkboard behind his desk in his office.

The focus to get Martins Motorsports their first playoff berth is intense. Sitting 18th in the driver points and 19th in owner points, the team can practically smell the playoffs.

“I’m basing a lot of what we are doing on the competition around us,” Martins explained. “We’re right behind Stewart-Haas (in owner points) and Ryan Sieg’s team. We are in front of Sam Hunt Racing, which is a smaller team as well, but they have a partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing. That’s a small team, paired with a much bigger organization.”

It’s getting tough at the front of the Xfinity field. With JGR moving to four full-time cars in Xfinity and Richard Childress Racing already clinching a playoff spot with Myatt Snider, the spots are filling up fast. Martins is banking on racing his way in via points and believes that a handful of races coming up prove to be some of the best potential for the organization to clinch their first playoff berth.

Martins Motorsports will bring a few new cars to the track in the coming weeks, including Charlotte next weekend and COTA for this weekend. Are they brand new? Not quite… but they are new to the team, and it’s a revelation that Martins himself is even surprised but happy with for his small team.

Another major circle on their calendar is Texas in June. The team recorded their best finish ever just last season at Texas Motor Speedway, and the engine, in particular, has Martins eager to return.

“I feel like we are bringing a better motor package,” Martins said. “We’ve also got an ECR engine that we run occasionally, which really helps us. We ran that car at Las Vegas and ran in the top 15.”

So out of those 100 starts, what was his personal favorite moment? It may come as a surprise that it wasn’t when he finished eighth at Texas in 2020, which is the best finish of his career thus far. Instead, it harkens back to his debut season with Martins Motorsports. The aforementioned 2014 season saw 10 of 11 starts featuring a finish of 30th or worse. But a 14th place finish at Talladega was a shining moment for both the driver and the team that is hard to top even seven years later.

“We had no business being out there at all,” Martins explained. “Finishing 14th there and making it through a wild race with a clean race car. We probably would have been out of business with a wrecked car.”

The Next 100

So what do the next 100 starts for Martins Motorsports look like? The team decided to play a joke on social media when April Fools Day rolled around, teasing a COTA Cup debut for Martins. But is it an actual possibility?

“Not a bit,” Martins said with a laugh. “No way, no chance, absolutely not. There is a zero percent chance that will ever happen. You’re talking about a car that will cost $300,000 to put together, and realistically with the way the finances are going to change in the Cup Series, I believe open teams are not even going to get paid. So I’ll go ahead and tell you that it is a zero percent chance that Martins Motorsports will have anything to do with showing up to a race track without getting paid.”

So, no Cup Series effort Martins should be expected with Next Gen. His focus remains locked onto the Xfinity Series and continuing to make Martins a competitive team. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean Martins himself remains behind the wheel for the team’s lifespan.

“I know to take our organization to the next level, it’s just going to take more funding,” said Martins. “Probably more funding than Tommy Joe Martins, at 34-years-old, is realistically going to be able to get. I’m taking basically what would be a partial season of sponsorship, and I am trying to extend that over the course of a year.”

Martins is eternally grateful for the sponsorship accumulated thus far. However, he acknowledges that the next logical step could involve bringing in a driver who can bring their own funding, whether on a part-time or full-time basis. This could also result in Martins taking existing sponsorship over to other teams such as McLeod or MBM in the coming years, should a proper driver for the No. 44 come forward. It’s a proposition that Martins sees zero issues with. Giving Martins the chance to focus solely on the management of the organization, and leaving the driving to someone else with funding provided could prove big for a growing team.

But that is for down the road. Martins is focused on now, and there is no shortage of happiness within the walls of his tiny office.

“This is the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” Martins said. “And it just happens to have my name on it, and that’s really kind of special.”

His untraditional approach to racing and his career in NASCAR had many hands helping to push him forward and place him where he sits today. For a driver who faced many failures on his way to his position now, Martins remains humbled by the support of those over the years. Of those 100 starts, it wasn’t until recent races that Martins felt the years of help were coming to fruition, and he now feels as competitive as ever.

“I’m in a better position now than I’ve ever been,” Martins explained. “But it gives me an appreciation for how many people had to work so hard to give me the rest of that. Owners like B.J. McLeod and Carl Long put deals together for me to get me the experience  I needed in the Xfinity Series to feel like I am a competitive driver.”

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