Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Martinsville: For the Short-Track Package, It’s Back to the Drawing Board

What Happened?

RIDGEWAY, Va. – Kyle Larson overtook and outran Joey Logano in the closing laps of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday (April 16) to claim his second win of 2023. Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Briscoe followed to complete the top-five finishers.

It was Hendrick Motorsports’ 28th Cup victory and Larson’s first at the Virginia short track.

See also
Kyle Larson Spoils Dominant Day for Stewart-Haas Racing at Martinsville

But What Really Happened?

When Frontstretch reporters arrived at Richmond on Sunday morning, there was a line of cars we had to pass to reach the parking area entrance.

It was about the most passing that happened all day.

At the beginning of the year, NASCAR announced it would change the short-track package on the Next Gen car in hopes of improving the racing product. Even after Phoenix Raceway and Richmond Raceway, there were those that had waited on this new package’s true test: Sunday’s 400-lap event at Martinsville.

Much like most of the field on Sunday, it did not pass.

Austin Dillon had made the most total green-flag passes with 89 by the end of the race at Martinsville. Seems like a lot, right?

Except for when you realize that at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, one of the complete opposites of a short track, the pass leader, Tyler Reddick, had made 177 green-flag overtakes. That’s just a bit more than Sunday’s conveyer belt.

When it was all said and done, many of the top finishers of the event were disappointed with how the cars had performed on the paperclip circuit. Leaders were able to pull away easily, passing cars was difficult, and most importantly, tire wear was nearly non-existent. It was at the point where having fresher tires proved almost no advantage over the rest of the field.

Just ask Larson. After all, he only took two tires on his last stop and outpaced the rest of the field on his route to a win. Or you can ask Todd Gilliland, who was running as high as second at one point after only taking two tires during a caution flag.

Don’t get it twisted, there were still some massive improvements on Sunday over last year’s spring edition of the Martinsville race and we’ll get to that.

However, Sunday’s race proved there’s still work to be done for the short-track package on the Next Gen, and whatever changes need to be made, they need to happen soon. There’s a small oval-shaped short track in North Carolina that’s counting on it in May.

Who Stood Out?

After what has been a rough going the last couple of years for Stewart-Haas Racing, the organization showed serious strength on Sunday.

All four SHR cars combined to lead 264 laps out of 400 on Sunday. Both Aric Almirola and Briscoe finished in the top 10, with the former earning his first top 10 of 2023. For the latter, it was his second top five of the year after leading 109 laps.

Even more impressively, he did it with a broken finger injury.

He wasn’t the only injured driver to finish well either. Heck, he wasn’t even the only injured driver named Chase.

Chase Elliott, who made his first start after being away for a broken leg for six weeks, finished 10th when it was all said and done. He led no laps and scored no stage points, but he proved he was almost back to the successful form that he had left on.

See also
Chase Elliott Exhausted After Earning Top 10 in Return After Leg Injury

Who Fell Flat?

In the first stage, pole sitter Ryan Preece led every lap en route to his first career stage win. Early in stage two, he looked as if he was about to keep his dominance going.

Then came the speeding penalty.

After suffering the infraction in stage two, Preece was sent to the rear of the field. He was not able to recover, and he finished 15th even after leading a race-high 135 laps — far and away more than he had led in his entire Cup career up that point.

But it could have been so much more.

As one door closes, however, another opens. That was certainly the case for his teammate, Kevin Harvick.

The driver of the No. 4 led 20 laps and won stage two in the process. It was his first Cup stage win since 2020.

Then, he too had a pit-road issue.

After his tire debacle, like teammate Preece, had to go to the back of the field after having to return to pit road with only around 50 laps to go.

He, of course, didn’t recover and finished 20th.

And how could he? What with passing being as difficult as it was.

Better Than Last Time?

After the abysmal showing we saw in the spring of 2022, something had to be done to help improve one of the fan-favorite tracks on the calendar.

It was a little bit better, too. After all, there was actual green-flag passes for the lead at certain points. One year ago, there were only four leaders and only two of them had actually led for reasons other than green-flag pit stops.

So, like Logano said, it really couldn’t get much worse.

But it still isn’t the Martinsville we all once knew and loved.

At the end of the day, there were nine different leaders and 10 lead changes. A bit better than what we saw one year ago and just a little better than last fall, when there were nine changes and five leaders.

Of course, last fall is where we saw the Hail Melon, which will never be repeated now that the famous Ross Chastain move is banned, and it’s pretty damn hard to top that.

Paint Scheme of the Race

It’s the first of what will likely be many throwback schemes to his numerous career liveries. This weekend, Stewart-Haas Racing and Realtree teamed up to use a Harvick scheme from his days in the ARCA Menards Series in 1999.

Before Sunday, the 2014 Cup champion had earned only one win on the paperclip in his 43 starts there. That said, such a long tenure in NASCAR’s highest tier has seen him sport a number of liveries on his cars, and having any of his many car designs on his car is a testament to his overall impact on the sport.

If camo isn’t your thing, then worry not — we’re only five weeks away from the debut of his No. 29 2001 Richard Childress Racing throwback at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

What’s Next?

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Big One.

The sport returns to Talladega Superspeedway for its first of two visits to the largest oval track on the points calendar. Qualifying for the GEICO 500 will begin on Saturday, April 22, at 10:30 a.m. ET, and the field will take the green on Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. ET with television coverage provided by FOX.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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DoninAjax

So Reddick made 177 green-flag passes at Auto Club! How many were the 15, 51, 78 and 77? How many did they make? How about a stat for how many times they were passed?

Kurt Smith

I love Kyle Larson but I think he maybe passed three cars yesterday. Just pit strategy and not making any mistakes. The NextGen car officially sucks but we already knew that. Even the Car of Tomorrow, as ugly, boxy and top heavy as it was, produced better racing than this. That’s how low the bar is now.

Was Harvick given a wheel from NASCAR’s Crappy Ass Parts Store? WTH happened with that? I hope he and Tony have something to say about it.

Glad after last week that Larson won and Preece got shuffled back in the pack where he’s used to racing.

janice

i can’t believe it took the brain trust of nascar so long to throw the caution when the 78 lost the wheel and it was just sitting up there by the wall on the track.

onto the race of mayhem.

Kevin in SoCal

The booth couldn’t see it, but the flagman should have been able to see it and relay that to the booth. Yes that took a while. Perhaps they were waiting to see if it was in the racing groove and if they could wait till everyone finished their pit stops so it didn’t screw anyone. Either way, NASCAR looks bad.

Bill B

That’s exactly what they were doing,,,, waiting for the pit cycle to complete. It didn’t take them long to realize that wasn’t going to happen (no one was going to come in while that tire was out there) and they did what they had to do, reluctantly throw the caution which totally changed the way the race would have ended. Not complaining but the fact that the caution wasn’t thrown immediately sheds light on NASCAR’s thought process (not that it’s any surprise).

Christopher

Harvick did not cut a tire. He cut the wheel because he lost the lug nut but the wheel didn’t come off; the rotor actually sliced the wheel inside rim apart. He was lucky to have made it back without losing the wheel.

Bill B

The new car with the new package FAILED miserably. Yesterday if you fell to the back you were doomed unless you found a way to make something happen in the pits or some offbeat strategy. With past cars, a good driver with a good car could fall to the back and still get back to the top ten within 100 laps. I don’t see that happening. You can also look at the lack of cautions (which isn’t all bad) as an indicator that something has significantly changed. Martinsville and Darlington are my two favorite tracks and it saddens me that they have ruined the racing at Martinsville. Watching cars on a conveyor belt is neither competitively compelling nor entertaining. Fail. Fail. Fail.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill B
Kurt Smith

I remember Jeff Gordon coming back from three laps down to win at Martinsville in 2005. Could never happen with the current IROC style machine.

Bill B

Yep, being a Gordon fan I remember that well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEgLJXC51V0

He got two back the old fashioned way by getting ahead of the leader on restarts after cautions (something that wouldn’t be possible today because the lapped cars no longer line up on the inside lanes, what a shame). The last lap back was the result of getting the lucky dog.

wildcats2016

I was at the race where Gordon did that. It was amazing and lots of fun to watch!

Kevin in SoCal

Preece and Harvick came from 35th to 15th and 20th, and you say there was no passing? I hear this “so tough to pass” quote after EVERY race, no matter what track.
If they changed Martinsville to create a second lane, then the fans would complain the track was neutered like Bristol.

Bill B

It took Preece 250 laps just to come back to 15th. Before this kit car, he’d have been back in the top 10 in a 100 laps, assuming his car was really as good as it seemed those first 100+ laps. Or was he just able to stay up there because it was so hard to pass?
I assume you’ve been a fan for 10+ years… If so, do you really think the racing at Martinsville hasn’t changed for the worse with this car?

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill B
Kevin in SoCal

I don’t scrutinize the races that closely, I just watch for fun. Other than the delay on throwing the caution for the tire, I thought the race was fine. I was surprised that Larson won by several seconds though, that is unusual for Martinsville. It acted like a 1.5 mile track where clean air is king.
I’m very upset that they have changed the race to 400 laps instead of 500, so yes its “worse” in that regard.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kevin in SoCal
wildcats2016

Can you say B O R I N G? What a dissatisfying race to watch. I have always enjoyed the races at Martinsville or at least I did before the CoT and whatever generation of fouled up race cars we are on now.

Chris

Hmmm. The race had more green flag passes (loop data) than the last Spring race with the prior gen car in 2021, and the 2021 race was 100 laps longer. (2,026 to 1,976). In fact, you have to go back 8 years to the Spring 2015 race to find a race that had a higher “average green flag passes per lap” number (5.8) than Sunday. It is the number of lead changes that have fallen off with the new car at Martinsville, not the overall passing in the field. All data can be found at Racing Reference.

DoninAjax

Green flag passes has to be one of the most useless stats in NA$CAR. How about green flag passes for the lead? And don’t count Daytona and Talladega and now Atlanta!

Kurt Smith

I agree, it’s a totally BS stat. When the restarts were going on and cars were on the outside, cars were constantly getting ahead of and behind each other. Happens at Talladega all the time too.

Marcus

The other BS stat, as far as I’m concerned is stage wins. Worth nothing except points for post season lineup. My idea about stages, if they want to wave a purple flag and let the leader k ow he won a stage, cool, but don’t throw a caution. Keep on racing and let the big dog eat

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