What matters at Martinsville: Playoff teams should play to their strengths

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What matters in the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway and how should playoff teams choose to set up their cars? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping today’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock):

Martinsville magnifies a team’s strengths

A 42-lap run decided the Martinsville race last spring.

An eternity on the 0.526-mile track, Denny Hamlin’s short-run dominance gave way to the steady doses of adjustments made to Martin Truex Jr.’s car, allowing enough time for Truex to overtake his Joe Gibbs Racing stable mate. The pass for the eventual win took five tries, so inefficient it offered Chase Elliott a chance to cut into the on-track delta from third place.

Even though Hamlin lost a race he probably should’ve won, his dominance on restarts and subsequent short runs was inarguable. He successfully defended his running position across all 14 starts and restarts he made from the front row. He was the only driver in the field to restart from the outside groove and take the lead; he did it twice, on laps 141 and 459. The heavy diet of short runs — there were 15 cautions in all — magnified his short-run speed. He ultimately turned the fastest overall lap and the fastest median lap of the race.

Had the contest culminated with one or more late cautions, his gearing towards short-run strength would’ve been successful in the results column. But two opponents, first Ryan Blaney then Truex, displayed alternative methods to success. Blaney’s car was a long-run stalwart, helping him to lead 157 laps on the day. Truex’s car ranked as the fastest across the final 100 laps and didn’t fully optimize until the later legs of each green-flag run. His restarting — he didn’t cough up a single position on a restart until Hamlin bested him on the final restart of the race — helped in maintaining track position in the short term while his long-run speed allowed for passing as the run progressed.

In all, the April race in Martinsville saw a variety of plans and pathways. Polar-opposite extremes in car setup — Hamlin’s short-run strength and Blaney’s long-run relentlessness — and a methodical hedging, thanks to Truex’s ability to do a little of everything well, allowed for multiple viable shots at a race win. The idea that any strength can actually lead to victory might be the most definable characteristic of the Virginia short track and should suit most drivers well, including the seven playoff contenders who’ve yet to qualify into the Championship 4, in today’s race.

The dueling game plans were microcosms of each driver’s natural strength. Hamlin is a more efficient restarter than he is a long-run passer. Blaney’s long-run acumen has not only been a team strength this season, but it also led to a win in Atlanta’s spring race. Truex’s stature as a jack of all trades has been crucial in recent seasons, including this one, when his team dedicated its concentration on the 750-horsepower tracks with playoff representation.

Essentially, each team relied on its biggest advantage. All of them could’ve conceivably won. Might we see repeat efforts?

What’s the most realistic strength for other playoff drivers?

Of course, Hamlin, Blaney and Truex aren’t the only drivers looking to lock into Championship 4 eligibility. Three spots beside Kyle Larson are available, either via a win today or a strong-enough performance.

But Martinsville success for any of the remaining four drivers shouldn’t look identical. Each has his own strengths and different team capability:

Chase Elliott, long runs: Elliott fares as the most efficient long-run passer on 750-horsepower tracks among all playoff drivers, a plodding trait that was present in April when he utilized the fourth-fastest car late in runs to reel in both Truex and Hamlin. He ultimately passed Hamlin and finished second on a day where 60.5% of his pass encounters resulted in his favor. Only Blaney’s 66.7% rate was higher among Martinsville’s frontrunners.

Joey Logano, short runs: Long runs might serve as the downfall for Logano at Martinsville, who ranks among the eight least efficient passers this season on 750-horsepower tracks. Where he could potentially thrive, though, is if the race breaks chaotic. He ranks third in Production Equal Equipment Rating in races with a higher-than-average caution volume, in part due to his efforts on restarts at choose-rule tracks. He ranks fourth among playoff drivers in position retention rate (68.0%) and second in positions gained (+30).

Kyle Busch, long runs: While he’s a quality restarter compared to the Cup field at large, Busch ranks eighth among the eight playoff drivers in position retention rate on choose-rule restarts, a disadvantage on short runs. But long runs have brought out his best in 2021, leading to him ranking third in adjusted pass efficiency and third, among playoff drivers, in surplus passing value specifically on 750-horsepower tracks. He earned an adjusted pass differential in the spring race 12 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Brad Keselowski, short runs: Keselowski fares as one of the four least efficient long-run passers on 750-horsepower ovals, but his penchant for swinging track position on restarts is second to none. His 33 positions gained this year on choose-rule restarts is the most of any driver, while his 68.8% position retention rate ranks third among playoff contenders. Caution flags created by regular calamity would do his team wonders. His car ranks 12th overall in average median lap time on this track type, the slowest among all remaining playoff teams.

The most straightforward restart dynamic

Different from the previous two races at Texas and Kansas, where restarts were tantamount to stampedes, Martinsville’s restarting dynamic is straightforward, often orderly and on relatively equal footing. It’s arguably the most fair restarting dynamic of any track utilizing the choose rule.

Since Martinsville’s 2020 spring race, 36 starts and restarts ran a full two laps or longer. Across all of them, cars slotted on the inside and outside of the front row retained an even 80.5% of the time. Most often, the second-place car is searching for (and finds) an opening on the bottom; however, Hamlin proved last spring that a capable car can launch better than the leader and secure a lead, contrary to popular wisdom based on outdated anecdotes.

Of the top 14 restarting slots at Martinsville, all but one saw an average positional change less than 0.5 positions, meaning that these typically vulnerable moments shouldn’t induce the type of panic we see from drivers on 550-horsepower tracks. A bad restart won’t derail the rest of a run, while the slotting — inside or outside — shouldn’t cause drivers and spotters to sweat.

It’s a quality restart dynamic that blends into every subsequent run, allowing good restarters to rise to their strengths and bad restarters some wiggle room for recovery. It’s an ideal setting for a race that will determine three of next Sunday’s four championship-eligible competitors.