Long: Martinsville Cup race leaves drivers seeking changes

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The lasting image of this weekend’s action at Martinsville Speedway will be the punches Ty Gibbs threw at Sam Mayer after Friday’s Xfinity Series race.

That will overshadow what happened in Saturday’s Cup race — even with the feel-good moment of William Byron celebrating the win with his mom a year after she had a stroke-like event at this race.

It’s just that Martinsville often builds an anticipation of close racing, passing, beating and banging and drama at the end. While Saturday’s Cup race went to overtime, this might be an event that fades into track’s storied history.

Saturday’s Cup race had five lead changes among four drivers. Chase Elliott led the first 185 laps, and Byron led the next 118 before green-flag pit stops. He regained the point and went on to lead the final 43 laps. That was it.

“I know, certainly, we want to put on a better product than that,” Denny Hamlin said of the racing with the Next Gen car after finishing 28th.

A combination of factors led to the type of racing fans saw — or didn’t see. The race featured only four cautions, including two for stage breaks. 

With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees during the night race, tire wear was not an issue.

“Anytime it’s below 40 degrees I’d say, the tires don’t even lay rubber,” Byron said. “That was definitely a factor all night.”

Ryan Blaney said after finishing fourth that more work can be done with the tires. 

“The left sides just don’t wear on this car,” he said. “That’s just kind of how it is, so I know they’ve been playing around with softer lefts and things like that, so go for it. I mean, go way softer, especially on the lefts and see where it gets you.”

While Ross Chastain finished fifth after starting 27th, drivers talked about the challenge of passing — or getting close enough to pass.

Cole Custer started third and ran in the top five for the first two stages until a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire put him at the back of the field. He never recovered, finishing 21st.

“It just seemed, at least from my point of view, that the cars would actually get a little bit aero tight in the corner,” Custer told NBC Sports. “When you’re back in traffic, it just made it so you couldn’t get to the guy’s bumper and really do what you need to do. Everybody’s cars were pretty equal, honestly, too, and no rubber got put down.”

Hamlin and Bubba Wallace each kept the leader from lapping them for several laps at one point. 

“I just aero blocked,” Hamlin said. “It’s crazy to say that. You just try to take away his air and run on the curb and maybe he’ll mess up. We sucked so bad we couldn’t hold him off.

Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports: Aero was a big problem.”

He got shuffled to the back after a pit road penalty and finished 17th. 

“It was a different type of race,” Keselowski said. “I’m not sure I would say (the Next Gen cars) were not right for short tracks, but I would say we also could do a little more work.”

Kevin Harvick, who finished 14th, told NBC Sports: “The car is fine. The gear ratios are way wrong.”

Hamlin said it’s not one issue that led to Saturday night’s racing.

“If you drove these cars, you’d know that the wake is big,” he said. “We just don’t have the ability to have the mechanical grip right now to pass. It’s a combination of the car, track and tire. It’s those things put all together that equal what we have. We’re learning, we’re trying to get better, but no idea of how you fix this thing right now.”

But Hamlin said timing could be a key for any changes.

“Listen, if we want big changes, we have to be testing now for next year because we have to get new parts made. We can’t even get the parts we’ve got now,” he said. “Everything is just so delayed. 

“We can’t go to the end of this season and say ‘Alright, let’s address the racing at Martinsville, Phoenix and Richmond.’ It is too late then. It is too late. You can’t get the parts. We have to be testing now, and I think probably what we could do or should do is get a couple of engineers or something from each team to collaborate on what do we think will make it better.  

“That’s what happened when we re-tested Charlotte (in December). NASCAR came to us and said please help us. … So the teams got together, ‘Let’s try this’ and ‘Let’s try that.’ And we made it better. The car was dramatically better from when I tested in Charlotte (in November) from when the guys went back, but it doesn’t address this type of racing.”

As teams and the sport learn more, any adjustments can be made in time before the series returns to Martinsville in October for the season’s penultimate race and final chance to make the championship event. 

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.