Nothing about the 2022 edition of the Virginia Late Model Triple Crown has been predictable through the first two races.
This extends to the drivers who share the points lead heading into Saturday’s ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway, as young standout Mason Diaz and veteran Mark Wertz have withstood the chaos to accumulate average finishes of fourth.
Diaz regularly anticipates unpredictability when it comes to competing in the Virginia Triple Crown, but he considers himself fortunate to be atop the standings and is optimistic that he can bring home a title on Saturday evening.
“I figured we would have some decent finishes,” Diaz said. “With these big races, it’s so hard to tell what will happen. There tends to be a lot of carnage every year and we were never the best at Langley [Speedway]. We just wanted to go for it this year, but we’ve been fortunate with two fourth-place finishes.”
Even though he’s only 22, Diaz enters the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 with plenty of experience on his side.
Having made starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Camping World Truck Series and all three ARCA divisions, Diaz said the seat time has helped build his endurance and enabled him to be more comfortable against racing established Late Model Stock veterans like Peyton Sellers and Bobby McCarty.
That maturity proved to be an essential quality for Diaz during the final laps of the first Virginia Triple Crown event in the Thunder Road Harley-Davidson 200 at South Boston on July 2.
With 12 laps remaining, Diaz was fighting for track position inside the top 10 when Jonathan Shafer was turned by Mike Looney on the frontstretch, leaving with Diaz and the rest of the field with nowhere to go as a 20-car pileup unfolded.
Instead of calling it a night, Diaz assessed the damage to his No. 24 Solid Rock Carriers Chevrolet and managed to get back on track. He avoided another late-race accident to obtain a solid fourth-place finish.
“I didn’t think we’d be able to keep going,” Diaz said. “I hopped out of the car from the passenger side because I had a car on top of me. The wheels were pretty straight, and my crew told me that if the wheels were straight, we would go back out. We needed a whole new body on the car after the race, but it could have been a whole lot worse.”
RACING REFERENCE: Career stats for Mason Diaz
While Diaz’s crew had to make repairs to his car, Wertz was fortunate by missing the huge crash altogether. He ended up finishing sixth at South Boston before following that performance up with a second-place run at his home track of Langley Speedway in the Hampton Heat 200.
A two-time Langley track champion in 2003 and 2004, Wertz has been enthralled by the success he has experienced in the Virginia Triple Crown this year and said nearly securing the Hampton Heat victory against so many talented drivers was a major highlight in his long career.
“That was epic,” Wertz said. “The best of the best were there for the Hampton Heat, so to execute a well-thought out race with strategy and tire management just made recognize that this program has the ability to race with all the big teams.”
Now 53, Wertz has seen Late Model Stock competition on the East Coast change drastically in just the past couple decades. The most notable differences for him are how much younger his competitors are and the amount of money invested into ensuring they are able to succeed on the track.
Despite these changes, Wertz remains confident his No. 55 CorvetteParts.net/Dunkin Donuts Chevrolet prepared by Bubba Johnston can be competitive in both the weekly races at Langley and in marquee events like the ValleyStar Credit Union 300. He added that the experience within the program gives them an advantage against the younger drivers.
Bringing in six-time Langley track champion Danny Edwards Jr. for the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 has only given Wertz more optimism about potentially bringing home a grandfather clock, but he stressed that everything for his team could be undone with a poor finish in his heat race.
With so much unpredictability associated with the heat races, Wertz intends to be patient but aggressive regardless of his starting position so he can have an opportunity to keep his hopes of a Martinsville win and Virginia Triple Crown title alive into the night.
“We’re definitely going to focus on short-run speed,” Wertz said. “Everybody has to run a heat race, so step one is just making [the ValleyStar Credit Union 300]. If time permits, we’ll work on our long run speed, but the main goal is focusing on making the race.”
Should Wertz make the 300-lap feature, he knows track position is going to be imperative for him to build a gap between Diaz and the rest of the Virginia Triple Crown contenders.
Like Wertz, Diaz is worried about getting caught up in an accident during his heat race and is hoping to put together a qualifying run strong enough to get him away from the chaos and inside the top 10 for the main event.
Diaz believes he’s getting closer to being a consistent contender in Late Model Stock events. He said winning the Virginia Triple Crown would give him and Mike Darne Racing plenty of momentum heading into the winter.
“It’d be really cool for us to win the Triple Crown,” Diaz said. “This hasn’t been our best year even though we’ve had the speed. There have been a lot of parts failures that have taken us out of races, but a Triple Crown title would really show the speed that we have. We just have to keep our heads down and make it through the weekend unharmed.”
Diaz and Wertz will have to fend off several other talented drivers to claim the Virginia Triple Crown title at Martinsville. Below are how the top 10 in the Virginia Triple Crown standings look heading into the final race.
- Mark Wertz: 4.0
Although he is one of the most experienced drivers in the field, Wertz has only attempted the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 eight times in his career. His most recent successful attempt came back in 2016, but he finished 41st after being collected in a crash on the opening lap.
- Mason Diaz: 4.0
Saturday will be Diaz’ fifth attempt in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300. In the races for which he’s qualified, Diaz has failed to finish every single one, with his best performance being a finish of 21st back in 2017.
- Jared Fryar: 5.5
Fryar salvaged a 10th-place finish at South Boston despite getting entangled in the big crash on the frontstretch. He followed that performance by winning the Hampton Heat and finds himself well within striking distance of the lead shared by Wertz and Diaz.
- Carter Langley: 6.0
Langley’s second attempt at the Virginia Triple Crown has been an adventurous one. He brought home a battered car at South Boston in fifth and will look to improve upon his seventh-place showing at Langley.
- Bobby McCarty: 8.5
The defending Virginia Triple Crown champion, the 2022 season has been dominated by inconsistency for McCarty. Despite this, McCarty still has a chance to defend his title after recording finishes of ninth and eighth at South Boston and Langley, respectively.
- Peyton Sellers: 8.5
No driver has recorded more Virginia Triple Crown championships than Peyton Sellers. A 14th-place run at Langley hindered Sellers’ average finish, but he still has a great opportunity to claim his fourth title in the series on Saturday.
- Conner Jones: 9.5
Jones opened his debut Virginia Triple Crown campaign by being swept up in the big one at South Boston that saw him get treated for a neck injury. He rebounded to finish sixth in the Hampton Heat but will need another strong performance at Martinsville to claim the title on Saturday.
- Camden Gullie: 11.5
Gullie was one of many drivers swept up in the big crash at South Boston, but he was able to make repairs and salvage a seventh that night. A 16th at Langley has dropped Gullie in the Virginia Triple Crown standings ahead of the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.
- Landon Pembelton: 14.5
The defending ValleyStar Credit Union 300 winner, Pembelton’s Virginia Triple Crown run has been marred by frustration. He has not yet recorded a top 10, but will look to showcase the speed of his Sellers Racing Inc. car as he attempts to defend his Martinsville victory.
- Mini Tyrrell: 14.5
After crashing at South Boston, Tyrrell rebounded in the Hampton Heat for a solid 12th-place run. Tyrrell will need to crack the top 10 in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 to have a shot at winning the Virginia Triple Crown.