5 burning questions for Sunday’s NOCO 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN)

Will Race Look Better This Year Than Last?

Owner/driver Brad Keselowski firmly believes that the NASCAR Cup Series cars should be difficult to drive, and from his experience last month at the Phoenix Raceway, he feels NASCAR accomplished that objective with the new competition package for short tracks and road courses.

“I enjoyed the race last week from the perspective of how hard the car was to drive,” Keselowski said Saturday morning before Cup qualifying at Atlanta. “I thought that was a massive gain here in the Cup Series. When I first came in the Cup Series these were some of the hardest cars I ever drove in my life. In fact, they were the hardest car I’d ever driven in my life.

“You would come off the corners and they would wiggle and they would wobble, and you would really be out of control and you’d spin the tires and then drive back down into the next corner and you’d about back it into the fence. And then over time the cars have gotten easier to drive. I think some of that was gaining experience as a driver, but the reality is that most of it was the cars over time developing into a series where they were easier to drive by the specs that NASCAR allowed us to utilize.”

After racing at Phoenix, however, Keselowski applauded the new rules package, which features significantly reduced downforce. The most obvious change is the rear spoiler, with its height halved from four inches to two.

“The car that we raced last week, if I put a local short track vet in it from anywhere in America, he would probably have struggled to drive,” Keselowski said. “He would probably spin out on corner exit. He would probably have a handful of problems with it.

“The cars that we had with the downforce package before that, I feel like I could take any local short track driver in the country, put them in there and they’d probably get in a good car and run pretty well. That’s not what we want at this level. That’s not what I think is indicative of what our fans and our sport has as an interest for what drivers should be at this level. So, I think in that sense, last week was a significant gain that we can hang our hat on.”

The Road Course and Selected Short Track Package consists of the following:

  1. 2” Spoiler
  2. Remove Engine Panel Strakes
  3. Remove Center and Inner Diffuser Strakes. Only the Outer Diffuser Strakes will remain installed. Spacers will be installed between the diffuser flap and diffuser due to removing the inner diffuser strakes. 
  4. Remove Diffuser Fences and Replace with Baseline Fences.
  5. Splitter stuffers will remain unchanged from the current components.

The package features slight modifications to the Next Gen car that significantly decrease the downforce created by the vehicles. This configuration will be utilized at all tracks where “wet weather equipment” will be required: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of The Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.

Chief among the changes are a two-inch rear spoiler (a reduction from the current four-inch blade on the rear deck lid) in addition to several tweaks underneath the car. Those include the removal of three diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and trimming the diffuser’s outer fencing. All changes were run together during the second day of a January test at Phoenix.

“That basically adds up to about a 30% downforce reduction,” Dr. Eric Jacuzzi told NASCAR.com. “We’re now in a downforce level we haven’t been at since pre-2000s for sure — like mid ’90s.”

So far, the results in the first two short tracks that ran the new package (Phoenix and Richmond) saw significant increases year-over-year in green flag passes for the lead and total green flag passes throughout the field.

Richmond Raceway’s 2023 Cup race (35 GFPL) set a new track record and saw an increase of +288.9% in green flag passes for the lead compared to the 2022 Richmond-1 event with nine green flag passes for the lead. 

Richmond (3,816 GFP) also set a new track record and saw an increase of +24.2% in total green flag passes compared to the 2022 Richond-1 event with 3,072 total green flag passes. 

Phoenix Raceway also saw increases of +7.7% year-over-year in green flag passes for the lead and +25.6% year-over-year in total green flag passes.

Phoenix saw 10 lead changes among 6 drivers with only 5 cautions for 35 laps. The cars were slipping and sliding a lot more around the Arizona oval. The only thing is, the only lead changes were really on pit sequences. Prior to Kevin Harvick passing Kyle Larson for the lead with 43 laps remaining that day, both Larson and William Byron had combined to lead 244 of the first 246 laps. The only time they didn’t lead was on the Stage 2 pit sequence when Larson pit on Lap 118. Ross Chastain stayed out and led Lap 119 before pitting. Keselowski did the same one lap later (Lap 120). Larson reinherited the lead on Lap 121 and would lead until his next pit stop on Lap 246.

At that point, Erik Jones stayed out to lead 14 laps before pitting. Larson took over the lead again on Lap 261 and was passed by Harvick on Lap 269. Only reason the lead changed hands two more times was for that caution with 11 to go for which Harvick took four tires and Larson won the race off pit road while taking two then Byron passing Larson for the win in the end. 

That’s it.

There were 14 lead changes in the spring race at Phoenix a year ago and just 11 in the championship race. There were 22 and 18 respectively the year prior. The 14 lead changes in the spring were the least amount since….2019. The 11 was even lower.

This time, we only got 10 lead changes.

Also last year, Bristol’s Fall race had the least amount of lead changes in well over a decade. Richmond had largely been a bust last year. They had 13 and 16 lead changes. That the worst since the 2019 package which was dubbed a mistake and changes were made.

So, how will Martinsville look on Sunday?

It was terrible back in the spring of a year ago. The 5 lead changes among 4 drivers that night were the same as we saw for 2019 too. The pair of 2019 races (3 lead changes each) and last spring (5) were the worst there since 1997. There were 18 and 15 respectively just one year prior. Last Fall we saw just 6 cautions and 8 lead changes.

There were only 4 cautions for 36 laps in April. That was at night and 100 laps shorter than the return trip last October. While the Fall race was a day race, it was still a cloudy day with temperatures in the upper 50’s. That’s not going to make the track slippery.

13 combined lead changes occurred a year ago. Last spring’s dud was for a number of factors including tires, the conditions of being a night race and the package.

Under the lights, it was far too cold for the tires to wear. As a result, the lack of rubber in the track made this one that you couldn’t pass. Then, factor in the shifting due to this racing package and the cars that would even start to get wide, could downshift to straighten in out and power up off the corners.

It was impossible to pass. Does this new package help?

I struggle to think it drastically will. I mean Martinsville is Martinsville. It’s not like you can make a second lane for passing. The low lane is the low lane and anything above it just won’t work. The track was designed this way and you can’t magically change it no matter what package you run.

Even if the tires fall off more, you can always downshift in the corners in this Next Gen and upshift to get power off. While stats show an improved show in Phoenix, the eye test doesn’t really say it was vastly better. Richmond was better for sure, but that’s a place where tire wear is already a key factor and you can pass with multiple lanes there. Martinsville is well, Martinsville.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 30: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #6 Kohler Generators Ford, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

How Aggressive Will Drivers Get?

This has been a problem in NASCAR lately. With how these races are run and how aggressive you have to be, driver code is out the window. Martinsville is a place to where a lot of this can come to a head. But, will it?

We know the first couple of stages could be somewhat tame. Who wants to create early enemies that could cost you later? Plus, why risk damage to your own car when you may need a clean car in the final stage?

Also, this race could be hard to pass again. Can you even get to someone’s bumper?

Which is why the final laps could be chaotic in a way that if there’s a late race restart, watch out. Joey Logano admitted that he wished he could have moved William Byron here last spring. He said the restart was his only shot because once they got single file, he couldn’t catch him due to the dirty air and how these cars don’t close up as easily here anymore.

No one is making that mistake a second time? Or do they? Or does this new package allow for cars to get closer again.

NASCAR has also sent a message to this garage that “Boys Have At It” isn’t what they thought it was. Bubba Wallace intentionally wrecked Kyle Larson last year in Vegas. He was suspended for a week. We’ve seen Denny Hamlin penalized for his actions against Ross Chastain in Phoenix. Can NASCAR really look the other way if someone tries to do the same on Sunday?

The precedent is there. What’s the difference between someone crashing a driver in Martinsville than Vegas or Phoenix other than speed that these cars are traveling?

To win this race, you’re going to have to be aggressive in getting the lead. It’s just how far are you willing to go and what risk are you willing to take? Do you want to be Public Enemy No. 1?

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 09: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 LLumar Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 09, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Has Martinsville Changed?

In the past, Martinsville was a one groove race track and if you were on the outside in the corners, you were toast. That led to games being played on pit road to lineup on the inside on the ensuing restarts. Also, Martinsville was a track you worried a lot of about brakes. With two long straightaways kept together by two u-turn type corners, it led to a lot of brake failures too.

Over the course of 500 laps, it was a true test of man vs. car vs. track. Then, as technology has advanced and the car has gotten safer, the parts stronger and the drivers better, Martinsville has changed its character.

The brakes were all better and could easily last 500 laps if done right. The thing is, as the brakes got hotter, the tires would bust. Now, Goodyear has even brought a better tire to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Brakes and tires aren’t as big of a worry coming to this place anymore as they would have been a decade or two ago.

Then, the car is sturdier where you can bump and bang and not have as much catastrophic damage to it.

On top of that, the cars and downforce levels have allowed drivers to race side-by-side longer around the .526-mile track. While the low groove is the preferred line, you’re still able to make passes on the outside if you have a fast car.

Finally, the choose rule has changed this all too with the sense you don’t need to play any games on pit road anymore. You can choose which lane you restart in. That’s purely dependent on your preference.

As a result, Martinsville isn’t like the Martinsville of old but still races like it in the sense.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 09: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 LLumar Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 09, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Will 100 Less Laps Make A Difference?

For the second straight year, Martinsville (VA) Speedway will once again host its shortest NASCAR Cup Series race since 1956 this weekend. See, instead of a pair of 500 lap races like we typically see on the Virginia paperclip each season, they’ve decided to shorten the spring race this year to a 400-lap event.

The last scheduled 400-lap Cup race run at Martinsville prior to last spring was Oct. 28, 1956 in which Jack Smith was victorious.

The Stages too also been shortened as well. The first stage is 80 laps, the second stage 100 with a final stage of 220 laps to the checkered flag finish.

The playoff race though still remains 500 laps.

However, will it change the racing? I mean you’re truly only talking about a 53 mile differential in mileage. We’ve shortened races at other tracks by 100 miles. This is basically half of that. So, will it truly change the outcome?

It may.

Since the stage era began in 2017, we’ve had 12 Martinsville races. In them, the leader at Lap 400 failed to win the race in the end 5 times. They’ve also won the race 7 times too including 7 of the last 10 overall.

Denny Hamlin was the leader at Lap 400 in both races in 2021. Martin Truex Jr. (Spring) and Alex Bowman (Fall) won those respective events.

The Fall race of 2020 saw Ryan Blaney leading on Lap 400. Chase Elliott would win in the end. Prior to that, Martin Truex Jr. was leading on Lap 400 in both the spring race of 2020 and Fall race of 2019. He won on both instances.

Brad Keselowski (spring 2019), Joey Logano (Fall 2018) and Clint Bowyer (Spring 2018) each did the same.

In 2017, Chase Elliott (Fall) and Kyle Busch (Spring) each were leading on Lap 400. Busch (Fall) and Keselowski (Spring) would win.

Last year, William Byron led the entire final stage and Christopher Bell was leading on Lap 400 in the fall and ended up in victory lane.

So, does 100 laps taken off the race alter the eventual winner?

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 30: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Can Anyone Top The “Big 3?”

JGR, Penske, HMS have won 16 of the last 17 Martinsville races including 3 of the last 5 belonging to HMS at that. Can anyone top them?

For Hendrick Motorsports, Josh Berry is in for Chase Elliott and he’s a past winner here in the Xfinity Series. William Byron picked up where Elliott left off in last year’s spring race. He finished second in both stages and led the final 212 laps for the win. Byron has six Top-8’s in his last seven Martinsville starts including a runner-up in the playoff race in 2019, fourth and fifth respectively in 2021 and a win in the spring race. He’s won twice already this season too including at Phoenix.

Alex Bowman has three Top-6 finishes in his last five Martinsville starts including a win in the 2021 playoff race. Kyle Larson was runner-up in last year’s Fall race.

HMS has had the winner or 2nd place finisher in each of the last five Martinsville races.

For Penske, them and HMS combined to take the entire top four of the finishing order last spring. They had the runner-up finisher in both races in 2020 and winner in the spring of 2019 and third and fifth in the Fall.

Joey Logano has scored pair of Top-5 finishes at Martinsville in 2020 and again last past spring (2nd) to go along with nine Top-10’s in his last 10 tries. He was 6th last October too.

Ryan Blaney was fourth in the spring race, third in last year’s Fall race while also coming home runner-up in both races in 2020. He was fourth and fifth respectively in 2019. Blaney, has seven Top-5s in his last 10 tries on the Virginia paperclip overall. While he was 11th in both races in 2021, he did sweep both stages in the spring race. That’s the good. However, Blaney is winless this year. He was winless in all of last year. He was winless in the 2021 playoffs. Can he end his winless drought? Austin Cindric has finished worse than 11th just once since 2017 here.

JGR has a rookie in Ty Gibbs who won last year’s Xfinity Series playoff race. Denny Hamlin has won here five times, swept both stages last year in the Fall race and led 203 laps in the process. Last year’s test here between the spring and Fall races could have put him back on the right path.

Christopher Bell was a fade last year until his playoff win. Bell had three Top 8’s, two of which are Top 5’s, in four Truck Series starts at Martinsville. However, in five Cup Series starts entering last October’s race, he finished 28th, 15th, seventh, 17th and 20th respectively with nine career laps led…Then he went out and led 150 laps to take a clutch victory.

Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the last seven Martinsville races. The only ones that he didn’t win was the last three Fall races to where he led 129 laps in the Fall of 2020 and was fourth in 2021. Truex, has seven top-5’s in his last 11 tries on the Virginia paperclip.

This will be tough to stop all 11 drivers on Sunday.

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