What matters at Martinsville: The prolonged struggle is real
What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and why is this a track that prolongs struggle? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends and that will shape the Blue Emu 500 at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1):
A driver’s biggest adversary: Martinsville induces struggle
It’s easy to drum up storylines around Martinsville. It’s a half-mile short track that invites closed-quarters racing, sparks rivalries and hosts paybacks. But these narratives neglect the biggest, most important matchup of all: Drivers vs. Racetrack.
Martinsville’s unique, flat design doesn’t translate to many other venues, nor does it represent the kind of racetrack most drivers familiarized themselves with at the amateur or grassroots levels. Furthermore, it’s a facility that elicits struggle from drivers young, old, good and bad for extended periods of time. Consider:
- Kevin Harvick hasn’t won at Martinsville in over 10 years and is winless since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
- Kyle Busch experienced a nine-race Martinsville stretch from 2008-12 that included six finishes of 22nd or worse.
- From 2006-17, a span of 23 races at Martinsville, Kurt Busch tallied 12 finishes of 22nd or worse. His lone top-10 finish was a win in 2014.
- Out of Martin Truex Jr.'s first 18 starts at Martinsville, 13 of them resulted in finishes of 19th or worse.
- In 12 career Martinsville starts, Kyle Larson finished 16th or worse nine times.
These are champions and stars of the sport, with competitive teams, bested by a dinky track for what seems like exaggerated amounts of time. Larson, for one, recognized it’s nothing like what he saw in his open-wheel upbringing, one of big corners and high bankings.
“Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning,” Larson said. “There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track.
“In sprint cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner … Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot.”
Brad Keselowski has to this point been impervious to Martinsville’s mighty backhand, finishing 10th or better in 16 of his 22 career starts and inside the top five in nine of his 10 most recent tries. But he recognizes a trap of perceived preparation into which many top drivers fall.
“It’s a really hard track to practice at, even more so because we can’t practice,” Keselowski said. “Even when you could practice there, it was really hard to get anything out of it. The track is so much different in practice as it is in the race and that was something that I struggled with very early at Martinsville a lot. We would be really fast in practice — we’d kind of be patting ourselves on the backs — and then we’d go to race and it was just a ‘meh’ race where we’d run 10th to 15th.
“In that sense, it was frustrating but not awful.”
Practice isn’t the only place where one can make gains. A 500-lap race lends plenty of room for improvement, but if drivers haven’t experienced good cars at any track in years, including Martinsville, they might not recall the feeling of a preferred, successful balance.
“I’ll never forget my first year in Cup, really my first two or three years in Cup, running just awful, bad, at California Speedway,” Keselowski said. “I really struggled to give feedback because I’d never had a good car in those first three races.
“I wasn’t able to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I need the car to do.’ I just didn’t have the experience. And with respect to that, I couldn’t provide the feedback to the team. The car wasn’t good, which meant I wasn’t developing the right techniques.”
Technique is a key word. Martinsville’s most recent winners, Truex and Chase Elliott, have been praised by competitors for their brilliance in braking zones, translatable across road courses and the tight-cornered Martinsville. But they’ve also routinely had fast cars. To wit, Truex and Elliott ranked second and first in green-flag speed during their respective wins last year.
“You find a technique that works and you stick with it, but those techniques only work when you have a car that is good enough,” Keselowski said. “And you know what ultimately happens a lot at Martinsville is that you get a technique, you get a good car and you get in a rhythm and someone starts to dominate.
“And vice versa: If you never find that technique and you never have a car that works well, you get lost.”
Despite attainable track position, speed is a prerequisite for a result
Optically, last year’s races at Martinsville contained parity. In the spring race, three different drivers led 70 or more laps; in the fall race, four drivers led over 35 laps. Combined, four stages saw four different winners.
The results, though, were true to speed, based on statistical correlation. The coefficient between speed ranking and finishing position was +0.9 for both races — note that +1.0 represents a perfect correlation — suggesting straightforward tilts in line with races in Martinsville’s recent past. It’s a near-perfect relationship that typically produces blowout wins like the ones we saw from Keselowski (446 laps led) and Truex (464 laps led) in 2019.
One of the common denominators of last year’s races was a lack of qualifying, spreading out the fastest cars in the field, forcing them to seek track position through speed, pit road strategy or passing. Another was the reduced spoiler height, diminishing the ability of a lead car to block a trailing car, thus allowing for easier pass completion.
We saw Elliott secure 28.6 positions beyond his expected pass differential, while Ryan Blaney, who earned a pair of runner-up finishes, tallied 21.19 surplus spots. Neither, though, earned the biggest bounty of positions via passing:
Kurt Busch scored the most surplus positions across Martinsville’s two races, but lacked the speed necessary to turn those spots into race wins. Matt Kenseth, his stablemate last season at Chip Ganassi Racing, encountered a similar problem deeper in the field.
It seems Busch is an astute Martinsville mover, but without elite speed, his ceiling for a result is lower than most other efficient passers.
The outside line is perfectly fine on restarts
Martinsville may have been the origin of drivers braking near the exit of pit road in order to avoid a poor restart slot. Ironically, this has long been a track where the success rates for defending a position are relatively even.
From 2017-18, the outside groove was the statistically stronger of the two, and while the inside groove proved better over the last couple years, including last season with the reduced spoiler height, it’s clear cars restarting from the outside aren’t doomed:
The inside groove was selected by the leader on 19 of 21 clean start and restart attempts in 2020. Truex was the only leader who selected the outside as his launching point, successfully defending his restart on lap 409 of last fall’s playoff race.
All in, occupants of the outside spot on the first row defended position on 71.43% of attempts (compared to the inside groove’s 80% retention rate) and passed for the lead four times within two laps of the restart, competitive marks that run counter to the lane’s reputation.