Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Will Mayhem Return to Martinsville?

Now in its third season of NASCAR Cup Series racing, the week-to-week performance of NASCAR’s Next Gen car continues to offer mixed results.

The car has produced some great racing at intermediate tracks, drafting tracks, and other high-speed venues. Road courses appear to be the Next Gen’s most consistent weakness.

Then there is the case of short tracks, which have been all over the board since the start of 2022. Each time the Cup Series has descended on a short track with the Next Gen, it has been almost impossible to predict whether the car will produce a compelling race or a glorified parade. Unfortunately, the Cup Series races at Martinsville Speedway with the Next Gen have looked more like the latter category. No doubt all eyes will be on the fabled short track this weekend when NASCAR makes its customary spring visit.

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It seems hard to believe that this car, or any car, could produce a bad race at Martinsville. The paperclip-shaped half mile has long been a bastion of the full-contact, hard-nosed racing that harkens back to NASCAR’s roots. During the 1990s and part of the 2000s, it sometimes felt like Martinsville took a back seat to Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond Raceway in terms of fan-favorite short tracks.

Yet the often-maligned Car of Tomorrow and the Gen 6 car, both of which had lackluster racing on intermediate tracks, always put on great shows at Martinsville. It was one of the few places where dirty air and aero packages didn’t seem to matter. The more important factors to Martinsville success were keeping your temper in check and your car in one piece.  

However, when the Next Gen raced at Martinsville for the first time in April 2022, fans got an unusually placid and shockingly dull race. The event received considerable hype as the third scheduled Cup Series night race at Martinsville (the first was run without fans in attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second only made it 50 laps before rain delayed the remainder of the race until Sunday afternoon). But instead of a classic short track showdown under the lights, the race was a tedious track position game.

It seemed like the only time that drivers could make passes was for a few laps after each restart. Passing at Martinsville has never been easy, but there had never been a race like this in recent memory where the field felt so frozen.

Chase Elliott started on the pole and led the first 185 laps, the entirety of the first two stages. When the leaders went to pit road after that, William Byron beat his Hendrick Motorsports teammate out of the pits and that was essentially the pass for the win.

Byron surrendered the lead during a green flag pit cycle but reclaimed the top spot five laps later, then led every lap bar one to the checkered flag. It was a snoozer of a race by any standard, and downright awful compared to the usual standard of excellence at Martinsville.

What made the Next Gen car so ill-suited for Martinsville?

The lousy race was likely due to a combination of attributes on the car: bigger brakes, wider tires, and lower horsepower compared to the last short track iteration of the Gen 6. The effect was that the Next Gen carried more speed through the center of the corner and had more grip than its predecessors. This resulted in fewer driver errors and less variance in speed among the whole field through the corners, which led to fewer passes. The race’s cold nighttime conditions also did not help matters.

Unfortunately, the poor race was not a one-time occurrence. The same problems plagued the fall 2022 race at Martinsville, not as severely as the spring race, but still a far cry from what fans have come to expect at the Paperclip. If not for Ross Chastain’s Hail Melon on the final lap, the race would be all but forgotten. The same goes for last year’s spring race. It had more strategy and variance in who ran up front at a given time, but it never felt like the Martinsville of old.

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The good news is that the most recent Cup Series race at Martinsville, the penultimate race of 2023, was the best of the four Next Gen races there. It was not a barnburner, but it did feel like drivers who had fast cars were able to move through the field and that track position, while critical, did not overwhelm the other competitive aspects of the race. Coincidence or not, last fall’s Martinsville race was the only one of the four Next Gen events run under sunny skies. Perhaps a warmer track loosens up the cars or gives the drivers more options. In either case, clear weather would be best for Martinsville this Sunday.

Yet sunshine alone will not automatically turn the Next Gen car into sunshine and rainbows at short tracks. The more races that run, the more it seems that the Next Gen is fundamentally better equipped for high-speed tracks. Bristol had a fantastic race a few weeks ago, but a lot of that can be attributed to the unexpectedly high tire falloff. Richmond has been hit or miss with the Next Gen, and last weekend’s race was more memorable for poor officiating on NASCAR’s part than any on-track action.

To be fair to the sanctioning body, there is still ongoing work to make the Next Gen better on short tracks. Thinking about how much the Gen 6 and the Car of Tomorrow changed during their lifetimes should provide some optimism for the future. But if another Martinsville race passes by without a little mayhem, it will be a sign that the Next Gen still has a long way to go on NASCAR’s shortest tracks.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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Shayne

Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

I’d rather watch fans race their own cars. Imagine having factory Challengers, Chargers, Camaros, and Mustangs beating and banging around the track.

Maybe we’ll see a decent race even, if it happens by accident.

DoninAjax

“Will Mayhem Return to Martinsville?”
Will NA$CAR ever give the drivers a real “race” car to drive?

wildcatsfan2016

I don’t want to see “mayhem” but I do want to see a decent race which I define as one where there is passing! There was always contact at Martinsville. It’s a very tight track but that doesn’t mean there needs to be massive wrecking. Unfortunately once again NASCAR has produced a car that isn’t a race car. Parity is not really a good thing.

Kevin in SoCal

I don’t care which car is on the track, 400 laps for a Cup race at Martinsville is a travesty. When do they shorten Bristol next?

cj

Run the rain tires for the entire race as an experiment to see if the quality of racing improves. The tires seem stick to the track and have fall off and the race quality at N. Wilkesboro and Richmond seemed to be better. At this point, what does NASCAR have to lose, the racing is bad as is.

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