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New NASCAR short track package unlikely to change Martinsville this weekend

Instead, everyone wants to see directional progress

NASCAR: Xfinity 500
Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably unreasonable to expect the racing product in the NASCAR Cup Series to look drastically different this weekend at Martinsville Speedway but rather continue the trend of directional progress towards what everyone in the industry wants it to eventually look like.

This will be the fifth race at the Virginia half-mile since the industry transitioned to the NextGen spec car in 2022. With the exception of the body and engine, all the cars are identical, and the competitive gap across the field has never been tighter.

But that makes it increasingly harder to pass on single groove short tracks and road courses, especially when factoring in that the high drag car features wider lower profile tires, a big sports car style braking package and an engine package so bogged down that it encourages drivers to downshift in every corner.

The latter is especially problematic because drivers can drive deep into a corner, make a mistake and catch the car with the shifter, before driving off into the corner. The races have all been generally a holistic letdown with the exception of the final lap ‘Hail Melon’ moment in October 2022.

Kyle Busch said at Bristol last month that the car was designed backwards, aerodynamically.

“The problem starts at the front of the car; the splitter and the way the air is, and everything that we all do on setup stuff for make these things rely on the air as much as they do,” Busch said. “That’s a problem. I think they went about it, and that’s a funny way to say it, backwards.”

NASCAR has worked diligently to improve the short track product with this car, to very little success, and no track has personified these issues like Martinsville. When the short track product is good, Martinsville is exceptional, and it hasn’t been over the past two years.

So, NASCAR’s latest swing was a simplified rear diffuser and a taller spoiler, up to 3”, for these types of tracks and the reaction from drivers has been pretty indifferent across its first two races at Phoenix and Richmond.

“The car felt more consistent but traffic felt worse,” said Martin Truex Jr at Richmond.

At worse, drivers say it has produced more of the same kind of moribund racing at those tracks but at best, the reaction has been a slight improvement and Brad Keselowski expects the same thing this weekend at Martinsville.

“I think back to practice at Richmond, and I thought we could pass in practice and then we got into a night race scenario, and the track locked down on the bottom and we couldn’t pass,” Keselowski said. “I think it would have been even worse with last year’s aero package.

“I suspect with Martinsville; the cars struggled to pass for about 40-50 laps and then the tires start to degrade and you see some passing and I suspect we’ll see that a little sooner.”

To his point, the best overall Martinsville race of the NextGen era did take place in November, but that isn’t saying much. Goodyear got a little more aggressive with the tire compound and ambient temperatures reached 80 degrees.

The track took rubber and tire wear allowed for passing to open up around 75 laps into a run but it was a conveyor belt prior to that point.

Ryan Preece says Martinsville will again be beholden to the ambient temperature, which projects to be in the low 60s, which is not usually a good place for the current tires to start laying down rubber.

“It just depends on tire wear and temperature, and it looks like it’s going to be cool, so it’s going to be hard to pass,” Preece said. “But when is Martinsville not hard to pass?

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you drive there, Late Model, Modified, if you don’t have a good car, you’re not going to pass a lot of cars.

“At the end of the day, the field is as close as it’s ever been, so you need to get your car driving to be maneuverable so you can drive where they can’t. It’s going to be good strategy, get track position and keep it.”

Goodyear is bringing back the same tire package as used at Martinsville in November, one that had more gage in the tread, designed to keep heat in the tire to promote additional fall off.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, says the goal is the continued progress made over the last several months.

“We went to a short track tire package with more gage late last year, trying to get more fall-off,” Stucker said. “We now come back with the same tire teams ran at Martinsville in that race in early-November so they have somewhat of a notebook started.  After running at Phoenix and Richmond over the past several weeks, teams have now had several races with the thicker gage, which has produced some good racing.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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