MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Saturday night’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway did not produce the type of racing most expect at the historic half-mile track. While some issues can be fixed, there’s a bigger question for NASCAR.
Does the sport need a night race at Martinsville?
If the answer is yes, then NASCAR should look at a new date for the event.
The low dropped to 39 degrees Saturday night, according to the National Weather Service. Add sustained winds of 10 mph and gusts of 20 mph and it made for a chilly night for fans.
The crisp conditions also are not good for the tires, which don’t lay rubber on the track when it’s that cold. Without rubber on the track, drivers aren’t forced to find different lanes. The result is that field runs in a line.
Add the speeds the cars ran and aero tight — an uncommon phrase at Martinsville — became an issue. That made passing difficult.
Saturday’s race had five lead changes over 403 laps. That’s the fewest lead changes since both 2019 races — which featured the high downforce package — saw three lead changes in each event at Martinsville. NASCAR changed the short track package after that season.
While NASCAR can possibly make changes to the car this season, changes to tires can be trickier.
Maybe a date change would be better for Martinsville if the series still wants a night race there.
The mean minimum temperature for Martinsville in April is 40 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. The mean minimum temperature for Martinsville is 50 degrees in May.
Saturday’s race was the earliest night Cup race — excluding the Clash and qualifying races in Daytona — since 2016. Texas Motor Speedway hosted a night race on April 9 that year.
Five times since 2015, NASCAR has had a Cup night race on a Saturday in early to mid April to avoid running on the same day as the final round of the Masters golf tournament.
With the possibility that nighttime temperatures could be in the 40s at Martinsville, NASCAR might be better off running on Saturday afternoon if it wants to avoid going head-to-head against the Masters. Or just race Sunday afternoon.
Why does NASCAR need bow to the Masters? NASCAR races head-to-head against NFL games, among the most popular programming on TV.
Is it better to risk racing under cold conditions that impact the event and fan experience or run at the same time as the Masters and the potential for better track conditions?
It’s among the questions NASCAR may have to consider as it puts together its 2023 schedule.
“This one is for my mom,” William Byron told FS1 after winning Saturday’s Cup race at Martinsville.
It was at this race a year ago that Byron’s mother, Dana, had a stroke-like event and was taken to a local hospital.
She was later diagnosed with a MALT Lymphoma tumor in the left side of her brain. After three months of treatments, there were no visible signs of the tumor in a scan.
A year later, Dana was back at Martinsville Speedway, but this time she went to Victory Lane.
“To think back to last year, the race was on a Sunday but it was the same weekend as this, and the first thing that happened was I got back to my bus and we finished fourth, and I was like, thinking about the race,” Byron said Saturday night. “I opened my phone and my dad is like, ‘call me.’”
“I’m like, man, that’s weird, he never says that after a race. He usually says something about the race or whatever, but it was like very urgent.
“So I called him, and he told me what was going on. He told me about it, and he told me what happened at the track and that she was rushed to the hospital.
“It all seemed okay, but they were like, yeah, there’s this mass in her brain, we’re not sure what it is. My heart just stopped. … I couldn’t deal with the emotion of that. It was hard to process. I’d say the next few days after that I didn’t think about racing at all. It was all about what was going on.
“I think as the next 90 to 100 days progressed, it was still about that, but I somehow had to race, too, and that was a tough challenge, but we worked through it, and it was — like my dad always says, it was a crazy 100 days or crazy 90 days. As we got on the other side of that, there was a lot of bright side. Great to have her here and have them here and just see how things have progressed in a year. It’s been amazing.”
Austin Dillon’s third-place finish marked his third consecutive top 10 this season. It also is his best finish at Martinsville Speedway. His previous best finish there was fourth in April 2016.
Dillon had not placed better than 13th in his last nine Martinsville Cup starts.
But he wasn’t ready to celebrate after the race.
“I’m a little bummed,” Dillon said. “I like to pride myself in when we get in those situations being clutch, and that was anything but that on that last restart. I spun the tires pretty good through the gears. Once I got back in line there, I had some grip, and I feel like we had good forward drive all night long. I just felt like if we got to the gears we were going to have a shot at (Byron).
“But our Get Bioethanol Chevy was really fast. We’ve been working our tails off. I’m not going to say we haven’t because we’ve been in a simulator, we’ve been working really hard to make this car as good as possible. We want to get RCR a win, and that’s what we’re here racing for.”