3 Reasons Why Sunday’s Race at Martinsville Likely Won’t Be a Repeat of the April Snoozer
Historically speaking, Martinsville Speedway — site of Sunday’s penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series season — is one of the most exciting stops on the Cup tour.
You’d have never known it from watching this April’s race at the .526-mile short track, however.
So humdrum was the 403-lap affair that not only did the drivers almost unanimously agree that the racing wasn’t vintage Martinsville, but even track president Clay Campbell concedes that the on-track product wasn’t up to the fabled short track’s lofty standards.
“I agree with the drivers who said it wasn’t vintage Martinsville — and it wasn’t,” Campbell told Sportscasting.com this week on a Zoom call where he discussed Sunday’s event. “But I think if you look at all the nuances that led to that, I think you would see that there’s better hope for this race than what we had in the spring.”
Is Campbell correct? Or is he being too optimistic (which is sort of his job as track president)?
Up next are three reasons why Campbell is likely right in his somewhat bold prediction.
Drivers and teams know more than they did before about the Next Gen car
Hands-down, the biggest reason why Sunday’s Xfinity 500 will likely be better than the spring Martinsville race is the simple fact that, unlike earlier this year, this won’t be the first event at the paperclip-shaped oval with the Next Generation Cup Series car that debuted at the beginning of the season.
The spring race produced a paltry five lead changes among only four drivers, including two drivers — Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Chase Elliott — who combined to lead all but six laps. While the Hendrick cars were undoubtedly the class of the field, the primary snooze factor was the Next Gen car — and drivers’ struggles to pass each other, whether it be near the front of the field or closer to the back.
“The Martinsville race in the spring was different than any Martinsville race I’ve ever really been a part of in the past,” Chase Elliott, who won the first two stages but finished 10th, said in a prerace news release from Team Chevy PR. “It was the craziest thing. You couldn’t pass. It was wild to be going that slow and to have a track position race like that.”
While Elliott isn’t particularly hopeful that the passing situation will improve this weekend, others are persuaded that the thousands of laps they’ve logged with the new car since the spring race will make a significant difference. Drivers turned some of those laps not all that long ago during a two-day organizational test held at Martinsville as a sort of tune-up for this weekend.
“A lot has changed since the last time we raced at Martinsville but having the test a few months ago is really going to help us prepare for this weekend,” Rudy Fugle, crew chief for spring Martinsville winner Byron, said in a Team Chevy news release. “We’re using a new tire than we did in the April race. We tested with it, so at least we have some idea of what falloff will look like, but there’s still some unknowns until you’re running 80 to 90 laps at a time in race conditions. This race is longer than the spring was as well, so that changes your strategy some.”
Former Martinsville winner Kevin Harvick likewise feels encouraged by the test, which NASCAR scheduled in hopes of making this weekend’s race superior to the one that fans witnessed seven months ago.
“After the test, I was like, ‘Man, we should’ve run this thing way earlier in the year,’” Harvick said in his team’s prerace news release. “There was so much rubber on the race track, and we had tire falloff, and the group was spread out. Two-and-a-half, three lanes were caked up with rubber, and it just seemed a lot more racey when it was hot, and we were able to lay rubber down. We didn’t lay any rubber down during the first race. … I just hope it lays rubber down again like it did at the test.”
The stakes are raised this weekend, with three Championship 4 berths up for grabs
Let’s face it: A lot more is on the line in Sunday’s race than there was the last time the NASCAR Cup Series convened at Martinsville. That race — the eighth race of the season — had minimal bearing on the playoffs or the championship.
The scenario couldn’t be any more different this weekend, when seven drivers will be competing for three remaining spots in the decisive Championship 4 race scheduled for Phoenix the following weekend.
The bottom line: Whether the Next Gen car races any better or not, drivers are going to be willing to take chances in Sunday’s Round of 8 elimination race that they wouldn’t take in the spring — a race that featured just two cautions, two of them for stage breaks. The result of having a bigger prize on Sunday will be more of the customary beating and banging and aggression and, yes, wrecking so synonymous with Martinsville.
“It is kind of the perfect cutoff race,” Chase Briscoe, who finds himself in a virtual must-win situation to advance to the Championship 4, said in his team’s prerace news release. “We go to some of these tracks and, especially on the short tracks, you can run out of patience pretty easily. You want to bump a guy and mess them up getting into a corner, and you can’t even get to them. But at Martinsville, you have every opportunity to do that.
“There’s just a lot of chaos that can ensue at the end of these cutoff races. Then, when you put all of that on a track like Martinsville, it makes for a really unique race.”
Ross Chastain — one of the drivers in position to qualify for the Championship 4 — has a similar assessment of this weekend.
“When NASCAR decided on the schedule, it was no accident that Martinsville was going to be the race to get into the Championship 4,” the Trackhouse Racing driver, who is second in points, said in a prerace news release from Team Chevy PR. “We’ve seen year over year, it produces some crazy races. I don’t expect anything different.”
This weather will be much different than what drivers experienced in the spring
When Cup Series drivers showed up to compete at Martinsville on April 9, the weather was unseasonably frigid. How frigid? Try the mid-30s.
The temperature will be considerably balmier on Sunday, when the forecast calls for temperatures to be in the lower 60s.
The dearth of chill alone should create a more competitive show this time around. Plus, this weekend’s will take place on a Sunday afternoon, unlike the spring race that went down on Saturday night.
“We’re not going to have mid-30-degree temperatures,” Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell told Sportscasting.com this week. “The teams have a lot more knowledge about the car now, too, so that makes a big difference. And then, like I said, the weather. Take that aside. That was just weird.”
Weird and surprising. And unlikely to be replicated at Martinsville in a few days.
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