What matters at Martinsville: The prolonged struggle is real


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.

Alex Bowman confident as he returns to racing from back injury


CONCORD, N.C. — Alex Bowman watched the rain-filled skies over Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday with more than a touch of disappointment.

As weather threatened to cancel Saturday night’s scheduled NASCAR Cup Series practice at the speedway, Bowman saw his chances to testing his car — and his body — dissolving in the raindrops. NASCAR ultimately cancelled practice and qualifying because of rain.

MORE: Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup practice, qualifying

Bowman suffered a fractured vertebra in a sprint car accident last month and has missed three Cup races while he recovers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, the season’s longest race, is scheduled to mark his return to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.

“It would have been really nice to kickstart that with practice today,” Bowman said. “I haven’t raced or competitively driven a race car in a month. I’m trying to understand where my rusty areas are going to be and where I’m still good.”

Bowman ran 200 laps in a test season at North Wilkesboro Speedway this week, but, of course, that doesn’t compare with the faster speeds and tougher G-forces he’ll experience over 400 laps Sunday at CMS.

Bowman admitted that he is still experiencing pain from the back injury — his car flipped several times — and that he expects some pain during the race. But he said he is confident he’ll be OK and that the longer race distance won’t be an issue.

“I broke my back a month ago, and there’s definitely things that come along with that for a long time,” he said. “I have some discomfort here and there and there are things I do that don’t feel good. That’s just part of it. It’s stuff I’ll have to deal with. But, for the most part, I’m back to normal.

“I’m easing back into being in the gym. I’m trying to be smart with things. If I twist the wrong way, sometimes it hurts. In the race car at the end of a six-hour race, I’m probably not going to be the best.”

The sprint car crash interrupted what had been a fine seasonal start for Bowman. Although winless, he had three top fives and six top 10s in the first 10 races.

“I’m excited to be back,” Bowman said. “Hopefully, we can pick up where we left off and be strong right out of the gate.”

He said he hopes to return to short-track racing but not in the near future.

“Someday I want to get back in a sprint car or midget,” he said. “I felt like we were just getting rolling in a sprint car. That night we were pretty fast. Definitely a bummer there. That’s something I really want to conquer and be competitive at in the World of Outlaws or High Limits races. Somebody I’ll get back to that. It’s probably smart if I give my day job a little alone time for a bit.”




Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series starting lineup: Rain cancels qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — William Byron and Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the front row after wet weather cancelled Saturday night qualifying.

Rain pelted the CMS area much of the day Saturday, and NASCAR announced at 3:45 p.m. that Cup practice and qualifying, scheduled for Saturday night, had been cancelled.

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

The starting field was set by the NASCAR rulebook.

Following Byron and Harvick in the starting top 10 will be Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The elimination of the practice session was particularly problematic for Alex Bowman, scheduled to return to racing Sunday after missing three weeks with a back injury, and Jimmie Johnson, who will be starting only his third race this year. Johnson will start 37th — last in the field.

Charlotte Cup starting lineup

Wet weather cancels Charlotte Cup Series practice, qualifying


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR Cup Series drivers will start the longest race of the season with no practice or qualifying.

Wet weather and predictions of more to come led NASCAR to cancel Saturday night’s Cup Series practice and qualifying in mid-afternoon. The field for Sunday’s 600-mile race was set by the NASCAR rulebook, placing William Byron and Kevin Harvick on the front row for the  scheduled 6 p.m. start.

MORE: Charlotte Cup starting lineup

MORE: Alex Bowman confident as he returns to cockpit

Weather also could be an issue Sunday as more rain is predicted for the speedway area.

Drivers were scheduled to practice at 7 p.m. Saturday. That session was to be followed by qualifying at 7:45 p.m. The cancellations were announced at 3:45 p.m.

The time-trial cancellation marked the first time in 64 years that qualifying has been canceled for the 600.

Charlotte Xfinity race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — Persistent rain forced the postponement of Saturday’s scheduled 300-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway to Monday.

The race is scheduled to start at noon ET. It will be televised by FS1 and broadcast by the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Driver introductions and other pre-race activities were held at the track Saturday, but rain that had dampened the track in the morning hours returned. After several attempts at drying the track, the race was postponed after heavier rain returned in mid-afternoon.

Justin Allgaier will start the race from the pole position.