It was a “typical Martinsville race” that also seemed “tame,” according to one driver who knows the track as well as anyone.
Passing was only achievable for the third-place car during the first five laps after a restart … but was much easier after the first five laps for the fifth-place car.
There were the fewest lead changes (three) in more than 51 years at the 0.526-mile oval, yet the battles for first place between Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott still were compelling.
The STP 500 proved again that the difficulty of evaluating the 2019 rules package is as much about the eye of the beholder as the eye test.
Was Sunday’s race among the greatest held at Martinsville Speedway?
Was it better than last year’s snow-delayed race in which drivers headed for off-week vacations seemed more preoccupied with logging laps than banging fenders?
Yes, from this corner.
But there were, as usual, some firm takeaways, too. So here they are.
–Aerodynamics mattered more than ever at Martinsville: Crew chief Paul Wolfe was “caught off guard” the minute Keselowski’s winning Ford hit the track for practice Saturday morning at Martinsville, a place “you don’t feel like it’s much of an aero track.”
Until this past weekend.
“We weren’t as good as I thought we would be (to start practice),” Wolfe said. “We felt the effects of the aero changes even though this is one of the slower tracks we race at. So, we scrambled a little bit. … We had to work on our setup quite a bit from what had worked for us in the past. And we knew there would be a little difference, but it was probably more than I expected.”
It was a common refrain throughout two days from Martinsville from drivers who pointed at aerodynamic dependence on a flat track. Denny Hamlin pointed to the turbulent wake from the lead car as the reason “you can’t really run directly behind somebody. Other than that, typical Martinsville race. The spoiler is just so big, it takes so much air off the car behind. You have to run a different line. The bottom is the fastest, so it’s very difficult once you get behind to pass someone (on the outside).”
Kyle Busch said if he didn’t pass a car in the first five laps of a run, it took about 60 more for tire degradation to allow for significant advancement. “There’s so much downforce; we’re going through the corners so fast,” he said. “There’s no way to go around the outside of somebody.”
Keselowski led 445 laps, but even he didn’t believe his No. 2 Ford necessarily was better than Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. After getting passed under green by Elliott on Lap 325, Keselowski figured he’d lost the race until his pit crew gave him back the lead for good with 126 laps remaining.
That underscored the advantage of having a clean track, and it also suggests that aerodynamics will be a larger factor at every oval this season. The next instance in which it’ll be more noticeable than ever likely will be the April 7 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is expected to produce lightning-fast laps.
“The higher the speeds, the more these aerodynamics take effect and the harder it will be to pass,” Hamlin said. “If any track is where the aero package really isn’t going to matter, it would be (Martinsville). So anywhere that gets a little faster in speed, it’ll be that much harder. The speeds definitely will be high (at Bristol), but you’ll have to make your car work where somebody else’s isn’t. You definitely won’t be able to run directly behind them.”
Said Wolfe: “For sure going to Bristol, I think we’re going to notice the effects of it, and all the short tracks as we move forward. It’s changed things for sure and keeps you on your toes.”
–While tire wear mattered much less, but …: Hardly any teams took advantage on jumping spots with two-tire stops.
That was one of many curious developments in a race that somehow featured all significant pit stops happening under caution. A 500-lap race at Martinsville typically has at least one green-flag pit cycle, yet Sunday’s race had none despite only seven cautions (excluding stage yellows, it would have marked only the third time in 30 years that a Martinsville race had five or fewer cautions).
The dearth of multicar wrecks (Sunday’s race had one) furthered a perplexing 2019 trend that again raises questions of whether the cars are too stuck to the track.
But in the short term, NASCAR hopefully will be leaning on Goodyear to construct a Martinsville tire that has more wear.
“We’ll look at everything, particularly tires and tire wear,” NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said Monday on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of that in either (the truck or Cup) race, so we’ve got to go back and look at what’s happening, particularly at Martinsville. That’s a big component of that race and something we need to have going forward.”
Of course, the Oct. 27 race might unfold completely differently (like last year) solely because there will be so much on the line in the playoffs (and even more so in 2020 when it becomes a cutoff race).
“Yeah, it seems like it’s always the fall that everyone goes crazy,” Hamlin said. “It just seemed like a tame race (Sunday). Even when I got to the back, it wasn’t huge log-jam packups like you’ve seen in the past. Everyone just kind of kept it in control, and these cars are really stuck to the ground so much, you really don’t get out of control that much. You’ve got what you’ve got.”
–That’s it, what’s next? In the past five races, the 2019 rules package has been used on ovals with lengths of 1.5 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile and a half-mile. Aside from road courses, it’s now undergone real-world testing at virtually every type of track in NASCAR’s premier series.
It would be fair to begin evaluating its efficacy and considering possible changes – with some parameters.
Any significant alterations to the horsepower and tapered spacer are a virtual nonstarter. Engine builders set their inventories months ahead, and adjustments would take massive effort and money (engines already are being sealed in Cup to reduce on both of those things).
If NASCAR wanted to tweak aero by reducing the height of its enormous spoilers, it would have an impact on reducing corner speeds with the 750-horsepower engines used at smaller tracks such as Martinsville.
But the challenge is that any such moves would need approval from team owners per the charter agreements. There was heavy pressure from teams to contain costs by consolidating the race package into two iterations this season, and any suggestion of in-season changes this year – which immediately would trigger more R&D spending – probably would draw pushback.
The last time NASCAR made major rules changes in season was when it experimented four years ago with the low-downforce and high-drag packages – both of which were the reaction to a lackluster start to 2015 that many blamed on high-corner speeds.
Those changes caused an unexpected seven-figure spike in the budgets for powerhouse teams, who probably would be open to considering tweaks if necessary but understandably wary of what it means for their wallets.
Another compelling reason to hold off on overhauling this year’s model is because it’s short-lived.
With an aggressive target date of the 2021 Daytona 500, there is furious work occurring behind the scenes on the Gen 7 car – its visual stylings, its features and parts (some of which are expected to be common) and its impact on helping keep team budgets in check.
It’s expected that on-track testing for the 2021 model will happen before the end of this season (and many believe it probably should have begun last season), and the goal is a fleet of five to seven cars per team (as opposed to roughly three times as many under the current model) with a budget far south of the $25-30 million that currently is estimated to be spent on championship entries.
Roger Penske recently was outspoken on the need to have the Gen 7 within two years to bring costs in line, and it was fittingly from an interview at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix season opener for IndyCar.
During the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze said Penske and Chip Ganassi have been forthright about the impact of the Dallara in IndyCar (which made the switch to a common chassis seven years ago).
“In team owner council meetings, we talk about areas to race in, and Mr. Penske and Mr. Ganassi are quite outspoken about what they’ve done in IndyCar,” Freeze said. “There’s one place you go to get your chassis. I don’t know all the parts and components very well with IndyCar racing, but I really think that’s the direction that’s being talked about with the Gen 7 car. Dictate the areas that you’re going to race in and areas you aren’t going to race in and try to drive some costs down.
“Listening to (Penske and Ganassi) have firsthand experience with that, it seems to have worked with viable IndyCar teams that are still very competitive, and their racing has been fantastic from the races I’ve watched. They still have a loyal, passionate fan base. We’re all observing how they do it, and I think some of those methods will be replicated across our sport.”
Penske estimated that IndyCar budgets top out at $10 million annually (across a 17-race schedule) for championship-caliber teams, which are limited on the amount that can be spent on research and development.
There are signs that it can work in NASCAR, too. The move to a common pit gun last year helped keep in check teams spending seven figures annually on pit stop equipment. “We don’t want to go to an all-spec series,” Freeze said. “That’s been done before, and I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for that. That’s the balance now. What areas do we need to not be racing in, and what areas can we race in without breaking the bank? If everybody agrees you can standardize the chassis and don’t have a speedway car vs. road course car.
“We’re taking some steps to refine our package that caused cost increases for us in specializing cars. With the new package, that’s one thing that could be addressed if you just lock it in that this is the chassis or body you’ve got, you shouldn’t need a whole lot of inventory.”
You can hear Freeze’s discussion of the Gen 7 car at around the 30:00 mark of the embedded audio player below, or listen and subscribe to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.
Ford was the first manufacturer to unveil its Gen 6 car, and Brad Keselowski was on record as far back as six months into its first season in 2013 that the hasty rollout was a marketing-driven misstep.
He took agency in ensuring it wouldn’t happen again with the development of the Mustang for its debut this season. The 2012 champion made several wind tunnel visits and peppered engineers with questions about the new model’s on-track viability.
Though he always is outspoken about the potential disparity between manufacturers, Keselowski also is well known within Ford’s NASCAR program for being a highly inquisitive driver who probes the R&D of his race cars with the exacting will of a world champion.
Keselowski provided a window into his hands-on style Sunday when asked about whether he was worried his team was peaking too early in the year.
“I think about that every day,” he said. “Every day I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Am I better today than I was yesterday?’ And if I’m not, and if we’re not, we’re going to lose. That’s the simple matter of this. The sport is very dynamic. Technology is changing every day. Somewhere out there right now someone is working on the next advancement that’s going to be critical to winning the playoffs, and we don’t know about it. Might be another team, might be someone in our own group. If we stay stagnant, it’s guaranteed we will fall.
“So, I think about it every day. The only thing I know to do is just be super annoying. That’s really all I know. All I know is to go in and sit in on meetings and ask questions that make people squirm and watch them squirm and watch their face, and when they squirm, are they squirming because they should be squirming, or are they squirming because they just don’t want to work?
“And that’s all I know. I wish I was smarter than that. I wish I was better than that. But all I know how to do is read their body language and see if they’ve got more than I think they’ve got or if this is all we’ve got and push those people.”
Nearly as eye-opening as his sublime drive Sunday were Keselowski’s candid comments about getting more active in finding funding for Team Penske.
Opening his postrace interview in the media center by noting “we’re fighting so hard to keep sponsors,” Keselowski disclosed he has taken on more responsibility for ensuring his No. 2 Ford as a championship-caliber budget for 2020 (this season is set).
That certainly casts some doubt on the future of Miller Lite, which was the full-season primary sponsor of the No. 2 as recently as 2013. Amid branding and ownership changes at its parent company, the beer company has scaled back in recent seasons.
This was the second consecutive season Miller Lite wasn’t the primary hood sponsor for the Daytona 500, and it has yet to be the primary in any of Keselowski’s races this season.
Last year, Team Penske said Miller Lite was the sponsor of 11 races. According to the team after a Nov. 3, 2017 news release, Miller Lite’s deal was for “2018 and beyond.”
Roughly 24 hours before his first finish outside the top 20 at Martinsville in five years and only his fourth in 35 starts at the 0.526-mile oval, Jimmie Johnson struck a positive tone while also already seeming to reckon with what might lie ahead.
“History helps the week coming into the race, but as soon as timing and scoring starts on Friday or Saturday, reality is reality,” the nine-time winner at Martinsville said Saturday after qualifying 11th – the highlight of a dismal weekend at a normally illustrious track for the seven-time champion. “We’ve had a good car, so I still think we’re missing a little bit. I think we’re in a decent spot. Hopefully a top five will be on the books for us.”
It wasn’t. Johnson finished two laps down in 24th solely because his No. 48 Camaro was just that slow. There were no pit penalties or accidents that hampered the superstar once dubbed “Mr. Martinsville” by Jeff Gordon.
Johnson’s struggle was a jarring juxtaposition with his Hendrick teammates.
Elliott challenged Keselowski with the verve that Johnson once showed in dethroning Gordon as the best driver at Martinsville. Alex Bowman was a solid top-15 driver for 500 laps, and even William Byron finished two spots ahead of Johnson despite starting from the back and overcoming a half-spin.
It was a sobering reality for Johnson, who is 15th in points through six races with new crew chief Kevin Meendering. That relationship still is developing, and there have been small victories such as making the final round of qualifying in four of the past five races.
“We’re getting practice sessions sorted out,” Johnson said. “We’re qualifying better. We’re having some good first halves of races. We’ve had a couple of good full races. But that consistency from first practice session through the end of the race is what we’re trying to hit on now.”
They will need to hit on it soon or the possibility of Johnson missing the playoffs for the first time in his 18 seasons will become disturbingly real.
There’s been no official confirmation of its demise, but NASCAR’s decision on group qualifying further underscored the Drivers Council is gone and likely for good.
Before announcing a new penalty Monday for failure to make a timed lap during any round of qualifying, drivers’ opinions hardly were solicited, according to those surveyed at Martinsville. The door to the NASCAR hauler remains open – Jimmie Johnson said he made a visit after Fontana quals – and there were several conversations between officials and drivers about group qualifying dating to last October’s 2018 announcement.
But as far as a formal gathering between NASCAR and drivers to discuss big-picture issues – which had been a regular occurrence since the Drivers Council’s inception in 2015 – there has been none this year or any scheduled in the future.
“I wouldn’t read too far into there not being a Driver Council,” Johnson said. “We had quarterly meetings at best, and depending on the timing of when those meetings took place, we could have a say in whatever was going on. The door is always open at the transporter. That’s still the way communication takes place.”
Martin Truex Jr., who recommended removing Lexan from spoilers to eliminate rear visibility, said he wasn’t approached by NASCAR for his opinion about group qualifying. The 2017 series champion said the Drivers Council largely isn’t missed.
“In a situation like (group changes qualifying), it’s probably a void,” Truex said about the lack of a formal channel. “But in most situations, it’s probably not a void because it was just one of those things that honestly became a waste of time for us.”