What matters at Martinsville: The prolonged struggle is real

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and why is this a track that prolongs struggle? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends and that will shape the Blue Emu 500 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1):

A driver’s biggest adversary: Martinsville induces struggle

It’s easy to drum up storylines around Martinsville. It’s a half-mile short track that invites closed-quarters racing, sparks rivalries and hosts paybacks. But these narratives neglect the biggest, most important matchup of all: Drivers vs. Racetrack.

Martinsville’s unique, flat design doesn’t translate to many other venues, nor does it represent the kind of racetrack most drivers familiarized themselves with at the amateur or grassroots levels. Furthermore, it’s a facility that elicits struggle from drivers young, old, good and bad for extended periods of time. Consider:

  • Kevin Harvick hasn’t won at Martinsville in over 10 years and is winless since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
  • Kyle Busch experienced a nine-race Martinsville stretch from 2008-12 that included six finishes of 22nd or worse.
  • From 2006-17, a span of 23 races at Martinsville, Kurt Busch tallied 12 finishes of 22nd or worse. His lone top-10 finish was a win in 2014.
  • Out of Martin Truex Jr.‘s first 18 starts at Martinsville, 13 of them resulted in finishes of 19th or worse.
  • In 12 career Martinsville starts, Kyle Larson finished 16th or worse nine times.

These are champions and stars of the sport, with competitive teams, bested by a dinky track for what seems like exaggerated amounts of time. Larson, for one, recognized it’s nothing like what he saw in his open-wheel upbringing, one of big corners and high bankings.

“Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning,” Larson said. “There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track.

“In sprint cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner … Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot.”

Brad Keselowski has to this point been impervious to Martinsville’s mighty backhand, finishing 10th or better in 16 of his 22 career starts and inside the top five in nine of his 10 most recent tries. But he recognizes a trap of perceived preparation into which many top drivers fall.

“It’s a really hard track to practice at, even more so because we can’t practice,” Keselowski said. “Even when you could practice there, it was really hard to get anything out of it. The track is so much different in practice as it is in the race and that was something that I struggled with very early at Martinsville a lot. We would be really fast in practice — we’d kind of be patting ourselves on the backs — and then we’d go to race and it was just a ‘meh’ race where we’d run 10th to 15th.

“In that sense, it was frustrating but not awful.”

Practice isn’t the only place where one can make gains. A 500-lap race lends plenty of room for improvement, but if drivers haven’t experienced good cars at any track in years, including Martinsville, they might not recall the feeling of a preferred, successful balance.

“I’ll never forget my first year in Cup, really my first two or three years in Cup, running just awful, bad, at California Speedway,” Keselowski said. “I really struggled to give feedback because I’d never had a good car in those first three races.

“I wasn’t able to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I need the car to do.’ I just didn’t have the experience. And with respect to that, I couldn’t provide the feedback to the team. The car wasn’t good, which meant I wasn’t developing the right techniques.”

Technique is a key word. Martinsville’s most recent winners, Truex and Chase Elliott, have been praised by competitors for their brilliance in braking zones, translatable across road courses and the tight-cornered Martinsville. But they’ve also routinely had fast cars. To wit, Truex and Elliott ranked second and first in green-flag speed during their respective wins last year.

“You find a technique that works and you stick with it, but those techniques only work when you have a car that is good enough,” Keselowski said. “And you know what ultimately happens a lot at Martinsville is that you get a technique, you get a good car and you get in a rhythm and someone starts to dominate.

“And vice versa: If you never find that technique and you never have a car that works well, you get lost.”

Despite attainable track position, speed is a prerequisite for a result

Optically, last year’s races at Martinsville contained parity. In the spring race, three different drivers led 70 or more laps; in the fall race, four drivers led over 35 laps. Combined, four stages saw four different winners.

The results, though, were true to speed, based on statistical correlation. The coefficient between speed ranking and finishing position was +0.9 for both races — note that +1.0 represents a perfect correlation — suggesting straightforward tilts in line with races in Martinsville’s recent past. It’s a near-perfect relationship that typically produces blowout wins like the ones we saw from Keselowski (446 laps led) and Truex (464 laps led) in 2019.

One of the common denominators of last year’s races was a lack of qualifying, spreading out the fastest cars in the field, forcing them to seek track position through speed, pit road strategy or passing. Another was the reduced spoiler height, diminishing the ability of a lead car to block a trailing car, thus allowing for easier pass completion.

We saw Elliott secure 28.6 positions beyond his expected pass differential, while Ryan Blaney, who earned a pair of runner-up finishes, tallied 21.19 surplus spots. Neither, though, earned the biggest bounty of positions via passing:

Kurt Busch scored the most surplus positions across Martinsville’s two races, but lacked the speed necessary to turn those spots into race wins. Matt Kenseth, his stablemate last season at Chip Ganassi Racing, encountered a similar problem deeper in the field.

It seems Busch is an astute Martinsville mover, but without elite speed, his ceiling for a result is lower than most other efficient passers.

The outside line is perfectly fine on restarts

Martinsville may have been the origin of drivers braking near the exit of pit road in order to avoid a poor restart slot. Ironically, this has long been a track where the success rates for defending a position are relatively even.

From 2017-18, the outside groove was the statistically stronger of the two, and while the inside groove proved better over the last couple years, including last season with the reduced spoiler height, it’s clear cars restarting from the outside aren’t doomed:

The inside groove was selected by the leader on 19 of 21 clean start and restart attempts in 2020. Truex was the only leader who selected the outside as his launching point, successfully defending his restart on lap 409 of last fall’s playoff race.

All in, occupants of the outside spot on the first row defended position on 71.43% of attempts (compared to the inside groove’s 80% retention rate) and passed for the lead four times within two laps of the restart, competitive marks that run counter to the lane’s reputation.

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.