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Why is It So Hard to Pass at Martinsville?

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway this weekend for the first of two visits to one of the series’ most iconic tracks. The 0.526-mile oval is one of the most popular tracks amongst the fans, but, recent races there have suffered from an overall difficulty to pass. What makes it so difficult to pass at Martinsville Speedway?

  • Two elements that make it hard to pass at Martinsville. One is the track itself, where the difficulty to pass plays into the appeal of short-track racing. However, that difficulty is exacerbated by the Next-Gen short-track package.
  • Martinsville has undergone a noticeable drop in racing quality since the Next-Gen car was introduced in 2022. Which specific elements of both the track and the Next-Gen car play into that?
  • Fans have not enjoyed the short-track racing with the Next-Gen car. Unfortunately, Martinsville is the track where the issues are the most prevalent.

The Track Itself

Martinsville Speedway is a flat, 0.526-mile course with tight turns and long straightaways. As a result, the only reasonable groove, for the most part, is right around the curbs at the bottom of the race track. One groove means that drivers cannot work their way to different parts to the track to either pass one or multiple cars at a time.

As a result, passing at Martinsville is a difficult and patient affair with drivers having two options. They can choose to get underneath a competitor and outbrake them going into a corner similar to a road course. They can also do the typical NASCAR thing and go for a bump and run, which often ends up with bent sheet metal and hurt feelings. The finish of the 2007 spring race featured below showcases how difficult it can be to pass at “The Paperclip”

Now, this difficulty in passing is not necessarily a bad thing. The patience and endurance of a long day at Martinsville combined with the contact that NASCAR short track racing is known for all come from the difficulty of passing at Martinsville.

It also plays into how lapped traffic works at short tracks. Most of the time, you will see the leader stretch out a decently sized lead that gets gobbled up by the guy in 2nd once the leader reaches lapped traffic. The leader has to be patient in lapped traffic, which can create some thrilling moments, such as this stage 2 finish to the spring race in 2017.

All this to say that difficult to pass at Martinsville is not a bad thing. It plays into the racing product that fans love, and it does create some great moments in this unique race track. The problem lies in how the Next-Gen short-track package exacerbates the difficulty of passing to an extreme.

The Next-Gen Short Track Package

The Next-Gen car does not lend itself well to tracks like Martinsville for multiple reasons. The lower horsepower combined with the bigger brakes means that the car reaches a lower top speed at the end of the straightaway plus a short braking zone. This makes it that much harder to outbrake a competitor heading into the corner.

Then there’s the issue of grip. The Next-Gen car has bigger tires and a 5-speed transmission which causes drivers to shift going into the turns. Both of these combine to give the cars more grip and stability in the turns, which makes it tougher to nudge someone out of the groove via the “Bump and Run”. The infamous 2022 spring race at Martinsville is easily the best showcase of these problems.

There is also the issue of the tires themselves. Martinsville is a track known for being tough on tires, and tire management has often been what separates the men from the boys. Early in the Next-Gen era, there was little falloff and management which created less speed variability, which, in turn, made it more difficult to pass.

However, Goodyear has become more aggressive with bringing softer tires that wear out more. This showcased itself in the fall race in 2023, where a combination of warm temperatures and a soft tire saw tire falloff and a less grippy track. This made for a more compelling race, even if it still wasn’t quite the Martinsville of old.

Now, the forecast is calling for roughly 20-degree cooler temperatures on Sunday, so, we probably won’t see exactly the same product as we saw in the fall. However, if Goodyear brings a tire that wears out, we could see tire management play a role in the long run, which makes for a compelling race. Due to the 130+ lap fuel window, Martinsville is not a track where pit strategy often plays a major role, but, tire management can.

Will it still be hard to pass at Martinsville Speedway this weekend? In all likelihood, yes, but, maybe tire wear could help the racing product.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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