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Cup drivers say more changes are needed to improve short-track racing

Dale Jarrett, Parker Kligerman, and Kim Coon react to comments from Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano after the low-downforce package was used at Martinsville, with some drivers clamoring for tire falloff and horse power.

Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway left questions about what NASCAR could do to change the racing and how soon it could happen.

Some drivers again called for NASCAR to give them more horsepower to make passing less challenging. But it came on a day when, according to NASCAR’s statistics, there were more green flag passes than in either of last season’s two Martinsville races combined.

Still, there was evidence of how tough it was to pass.

Joey Logano finished second despite having an average running position of 21.0 — the worst average running position for a runner-up finisher in a Cup race since at least 2008, according to Racing Insights.

Logano, the reigning series champion, started at the back of the field because of an unapproved adjustment before the race. He was lapped in the first stage and got his lap back at the stage break. Logano was lapped again at Lap 275 and didn’t climb into the top 15 until a green-flag pit cycle on Lap 292 of the 400-lap event as others ahead of him pitted.

“You got 30-something cars out there that run within a tenth (of a second),” Logano told NBC Sports after the race. “I was racing cars that I didn’t think I’d be racing, cars that in the past you would pass with ease. I couldn’t do that. … There’s just not enough speed difference in the cars.

“They’re almost the same. There’s not much fall-off. We need more fall-off, and we need a lot more horsepower.”

Denny Hamlin also lobbied for more horsepower after finishing fourth.

“We’re in a box with these engines, and NASCAR’s leadership wants us (with these) engines, they keep lowering horsepower, which makes us have to shift,” Hamlin told NBC Sports after the race.

“So I don’t know if we’re ever going to fix this until we put more horsepower on the cars or build a tire that somehow falls off. We have to try something different because we can’t just have follow-the-leader racing. Man, you want to see passes for the lead and we’re just not really seeing any of that right now.”

There were 10 lead changes in Sunday’s race but only three happened on the track. Of those three, only one came with the top two drivers on the same tire strategy — when Hamlin passed Chase Briscoe for the lead on Lap 257.

For as much as drivers want to increase horsepower, that doesn’t appear to be a likely option for the near future, based off what Hendrick Motorsports President and General Manager Jeff Andrews said after the race. Andrews used to oversee the Hendrick engine program.

Asked by NBC Sports about increasing horsepower, Andrews said: “When you start to make changes to that, it requires changes to a lot of parts and pieces. And some of those would be as much as a year to possibly 18 months lead time to get that work done and get parts ordered.

“So it’s a complicated question. I personally do not disagree with you that more power would be something to take a look at some day. It’s a long-term decision for the engine companies to do that.”

If there was still a chance for horsepower changes for 2024, Andrews said: “That decision needs to be made now. Yeah, very soon. Because depending on the parts and pieces, some things, as I said, are easily six months to a year out from a planning perspective.

“One thing that you need to realize is that all these engine companies have ordered parts and pieces for really the remainder of 2023, and to start to change that architecture around, it gets very, very complicated very quickly. That’s a long-term decision for sure.”

So, if not engines, then what?

Tire fall-off.

Hamlin looked to Friday’s Truck race as an example of how tire wear could be achievable. NASCAR started the trucks on wet weather tires, marking the first time wet weather tires had been used on an oval for a national series race. Those tires were on for about 30 laps and in that period, lap times slowed significantly through the run.

“They put a … rain tire on the trucks that fell off 1.5 seconds in 25 laps,” Hamlin said. “We got these Cup cars that somehow don’t fall off a half a second in 80 laps. Until we get lap-time variation, I’m going to keep harping and keeping saying it over and over and over. We’re going to have track position racing, single-file, follow-the-leader, nobody can pass.”

Ryan Preece started on the pole and led the first 135 laps until a pit road speeding penalty put him at the back of the field and he never recovered, finishing 15th. He is among those who want changes to the tires.

“If somebody was asking for my opinion and was willing to let me come to a short track and test the tire, I’d tell them it’s not always about softer tires,” Preece told NBC Sports.

“It’s about being able to lean on that outside of the tire and not have it slip like it’s on ice. To be more aggressive and how I want to drive and maneuver the car … you need to be able to go high and go low and really abuse the tire and the tire take it. Right now, if you try to pivot or make the core do something you want it to do, it just can’t take it.”

Ross Chastain kept Preece from lapping him for 20 laps early in the race and then held the lead for 31 laps despite much older tires than the rest of the field. Chastain also looks at the tire as a key to impact the racing.

“I think we’re in the middle of an evolution of the tire,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “I can’t wait for the next one to evolve as they continue to evolve with this new car. I think they’ll have a tire that will better suit what we’re trying to do.”

Chastain took the lead on Lap 136 by staying out when the rest of the field pitted. He tires had been on for 50 more laps than the field.

“I was racing in the 20s and we stayed out,” Chastain said. “With a little bit of them moving each other for second, I was able to get away (from the field) and I never thought I’d be able to do that. I was super happy when that happened and just as surprised as probably everybody.”

Chastain’s lead showed the challenge in passing.

There’s a couple of ways to look at how challenging passing was. Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, keeps track of positions changed per lap. Only position changes that take place at the start/finish line are counted.

Screenshot 2023-04-17 at 6.27.17 PM

Sunday’s race had 1,305 positions change in 350 laps of green flag racing (out of 400 total laps). That’s twice as many positions that changed than last fall’s race at Martinsville. That race had 634 position changes in 97 more green flag laps of racing than Sunday’s event.

Since Sunday’s race had 400 laps and most Martinsville races have 500 laps, another way to compare races is to look at the average number of position changes per lap. Sunday’s race had an average of 3.7 positions changing per green flag lap.

The April 2021 Martinsville race had an average of 4.5 positions changing per green flag lap. The November 2020 race had 4.6 such changes per green flag lap. Go back further and the contrast is more stark. The November 2015 Martinsville race had an average of 5.7 positions change per green flag lap. The March 2015 Martinsville race had an average of 7.1 positions change per green flag lap.

That is a 47.9% decrease in positions gained per green flag lap from that March 2015 race to Sunday’s race.

NASCAR measures things differently. It notes green flag passes. That’s any time a car gets ahead of another car on the track — whether the car being passed is on the same lap. Also, such passes can be recorded at any of the scoring loops on the track as opposed to only the start/finish line. There are eight scoring loops at Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR recorded 2,206 green flag passes over 350 green flag laps Sunday for an average of 5.8 passes per green flag lap. The two Martinsville races last year combined had 1,907 such passes — 1,233 in the spring race and 674 in last fall’s playoff race.

The March 2015 Cup race at Martinsville had 2,688 green flag passes in 388 green flag laps for an average of 6.9 passes per lap. That is a 15.9% decrease in green flag passes from that March 2015 race to Sunday’s race.

“The more you lower horsepower, the more you lower the gear, the less the tires will wear,” Hamlin said. “What comes first? The chicken or the egg?

“I think that maybe you could build a tire that would be better, but I think this kind of starts with the engine. I don’t know that the France family really wants us running big horsepower anymore. If that’s the case and this is the engine that we’ve got, we have to work with Goodyear on coming up with some sort of a tire that is better than what we’ve got.”