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.