Tame Martinsville Race Revives a Hotly Debated NASCAR Topic
The NASCAR Playoffs have been a hotly debated topic in the industry since their first iteration nearly two decades ago. But recent Martinsville Speedway Cup Series races have helped prove their worth in more ways than the simple guarantee of a close championship battle.
Martinsville has been a constant on the NASCAR calendar since the sanctioning body was officially formed in 1949. It has seen every single change in the sport across those 75 years, including the recent introduction of NASCAR’s latest car model.
The NASCAR Next Gen car has struggled to produce much passing at short tracks
The sanctioning body introduced the Next Gen car for competition in 2022. The idea was to provide teams with all the parts to build their vehicles from a single supplier, hoping to reduce costs and promote parity throughout the series.
It is still plenty expensive to own a Cup Series race team, but the series did see a few new owners join the sport, at least in part because of the Next Gen car business model. The parity aspect was a huge success in the 2022 season. A record-tying 19 different drivers won a race, including 16 among the 26 regular-season races.
Yet, the Next Gen car wasn’t perfect in its first season. The back ends were too stiff and left several drivers with concussions when their cars backed into a wall. It also failed to match the quality of races the previous car model put on at short tracks and road courses.
The April 2022 race at Martinsville was perhaps the clearest example. William Byron dominated with 212 laps led in the 400-lap event after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott led the first 185 circuits. The race featured only two caution flags for incidents, and even the last of those was a borderline call in an apparent attempt to spice up the finish of the event with seven laps to go.
The Next Gen car is not the sole culprit, however. The spring and fall races at Martinsville have had a wide gap in the respective intensity of their races for years since Martinsville became one of the 10 tracks to host a playoff race when the original Chase championship format debuted in 2004.
Playoff races have routinely featured heightened intensity at Martinsville
NASCAR added eliminations to the playoff format in 2014, and Martinsville has been the final cutoff race before the championship event since 2020. The first two years as the de facto semifinal event featured races with 12 and 15 cautions, respectively.
Sure, the number of cautions does not necessarily always correlate with the intensity of the race, but it often does at Martinsville because most incidents at the short flat track happen when one driver boots another out of the way in the corners.
That feature all but disappeared in the first Martinsville race with the Next Gen car last year, and it did not change much in the playoff race. A combination of factors, including wider tires, restricted-horsepower engines, and the ability to shift gears, has made passing much more difficult.
Playoff format may have saved the quality of the fall Martinsville race
The 2022 playoff race at Martinsville was not much different in terms of drivers’ ability to make passes. The event featured only six caution flags, with two of them for stage breaks, but that race is considered an instant classic because of an incredibly intense final 50 laps that included Ross Chastain’s historic “Hail Melon” wall-riding move on the last lap to gain the necessary positions to reach the Championship 4.
Without the playoffs, the October race at Martinsville a year ago would have likely been just another underwhelming short-track event with the Next Gen car. In many respects, the playoffs are what saved the quality of that race.
The 2023 spring race Sunday at Martinsville was back to the follow-the-leader doldrums that several early season events at Martinsville have suffered from in recent years. Pole sitter Ryan Preece led the first 135 laps until the first caution of the day sent the field to pit road. Preece got a pit-road penalty for speeding and was only able to recover to 15th in the final 265 laps.
The rest of the race featured a stage break, a caution for a loose tire on the track, and a crash by J.J. Yeley with 46 laps remaining. Track position was the largest determining factor in whether or not a driver had a good race. Joey Logano started the race from the rear of the field and was unable to gain much ground at all until a pit strategy call got him the lead during the caution for the Yeley wreck. Logano then was able to hold on for a second-place finish behind winner Kyle Larson.
The race was pretty standard for what has become of the spring Martinsville event. It was missing the playoff intensity from the fall.