3 thoughts from Martinsville into Talladega

Short Track Package Needs Help

Sunday’s race in Martinsville further proves that this short track package maybe isn’t the problem. It appears to be car related. While Richmond was better, one could say Phoenix and Martinsville weren’t.

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 but some of those were artificial.

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.

Martinsville saw 10 lead changes and just five cautions. 7 of the 10 lead changes were on pit cycles. There were only three on track passes for the lead which allowed two drivers to lead 244 of the 400 laps. Passing was a difficult now as it was last year. New package or not, it looked the exact same.

“Solid recovery for what the start of the race looked like. We went down a lap twice, two times. At one point in the race I would have been just happy to finish on a lead lap,” second place finisher, Joey Logano, admitted. “And Paul (Wolfe) did a good job of getting some good changes to the Verizon Mustang to where it got competitive. We just needed track position. Was able to stay out and get a lucky caution there during a green flag cycle. Stayed out again when everyone pitted and put us on the front row and a shot to win the race.”

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?

Sunday showed that it didn’t.

 “The package was terrible – it’s either the package or the tires,” said Denny Hamlin. “You can’t pass. Cars that I was lapping 10 laps before, we caught a caution, and I couldn’t pass them for second. It’s very difficult. Next Gen racing is all about strategy, execution on pit road – that’s who wins. Rarely does the car that dominates or the best car win, simply because you can’t control the race when you need to – at least we couldn’t. We made a great strategy call at the end to get positions back. I just needed to stay in the lead. It’s the biggest thing – just like Richmond. When you get the lead, you have to stay there. Just had unfortunate timing of that caution in the green flag pit stop cycle. We pitted, which put us towards the end of the lead lap cars. Cars that I was just lapping 10 laps prior – I couldn’t pass them. It is Next Gen racing with these tires and this aero package – there is no passing. You saw the 41 (Ryan Preece) dominate the race, and then he got caught and went to the back and that was it. That’s just what we’ve got.”

Drivers Finishing Up Front That Normally Don’t At Martinsville

Kyle Larson won. While some say that it wasn’t a fluke, trust me, it was. Even he agrees.

“I never ever would have thought that I would win here at Martinsville,” Larson admitted. “This place has been so tough on me. Just does not suit my driving style at all. I like to charge the center. I like to roll momentum, and that’s just not what this place is like. But thanks to Cliff Daniels and everybody for making me feel like I know what I’m doing sometimes around here. So I just can’t believe it.”

Larson, had two Top-5 (5th place in 2021, 2nd last Fall) in his last 11 Martinsville tries entering the weekend, including 11 of his 16 tries there seeing him finish outside the Top-15. 

Logano finished last in Bristol, started last in Martinsville and was outside the top 30 at the end of the opening stage. He still finished runner-up.

Chase Briscoe was fifth.

Hendrick Motorsports The Championship Favorites, Why This Immediate Success Could Lead To Playoff Dominance Too

Hendrick Motorsports has been penalized twice, but it doesn’t seem to faze them. Sunday was their fourth win of the 2023 season and if you look deeper at the places that they’ve won at, it goes to show you that not only is their dominance showing now, but it could later in the postseason too.

Las Vegas, Homestead, Martinsville and Phoenix make up the final four races of the season. The series has visited three of those four tracks already. HMS has won all three.

William Byron and Kyle Larson went 1-2 in Vegas. They combined to lead 239 of 271 laps (88.1%) that day. They were 1-2 in both stages as well as Alex Bowman giving them a 1-2-3 finish in Stage 2.

At Phoenix, Byron led 64 more laps in a win. Larson led 201 laps in a fourth-place run. That’s 265 of 317 laps led (83.5%) that day which included a 1-2 finish in each stage as well.

Then Sunday in Martinsville, Larson won again.

What’s scary for the field is the fact that Larson dominated Homestead a year ago too which means HMS could be a massive favorite later in the year too. He also made mention on Sunday that he feels like they’re close to being back to their 2021 success and that now, he’s even winning at places that he’s never had succecss at before either.

Also, next up is Talladega. Chase Elliott won the last race there last October. Then it’s to Dover. HMS went 1-2-3-4 in 2021 with Elliott winning that race a year ago as well.

Watch out for HMS as their success is far from over.

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