NASCAR Race Preview: Martinsville

By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor

The NASCAR Cup Series stars shake off the dirt from Bristol and recharge from the Easter off week and head to the shortest track on the schedule. The flat, half-mile oval of Martinsville Speedway is one of NASCAR’s oldest venues, hosting just the sixth race ever run in what would become the NASCAR Cup Series back in 1949. Since then Martinsville has become a staple, or some might say a “paperclip,” for drivers and fans. The slower speeds and tight corners have become a breeding ground for hurt feelings and torn sheet metal.

Martinsville’s unique layout is unlike any track on the schedule. The short straightaways quickly morph into tight corners with just 12 degrees of banking to lean on. This results in very slow speeds, but don’t let that fool you. Martinsville is still a very challenging race track.

Imagine you’re sitting at a stop light on an icy road and your goal is to beat the guy next to you. The light turns green and you put the pedal to the floor. Your tires spin and your engine revs to the limiter, but you’re only creeping along. Why? Your tires have little to no traction because of how fast they’re spinning. Now you release the pedal and engage again. This time slowly and with a purpose. Your tires now have the grip they need and you now begin to apply more pressure to the peddle until it hits the floor.

Now you’re flying. That’s Martinsville. 500 laps. 1,000 left turns.

Now if you recall the article posted about Atlanta, you’ll remember the emphasis put on tires and how its abrasive surface acted as a cheese grater to the rubber. Martinsville can do the same, but not because of the surface, but rather the driver.

One thousand corners can be strenuous on tires, especially with multiple green flag runs at a track that can be easy to overdrive. It’s possible to drive hard at Martinsville, but it comes with a price. Breaking hard into the corner and smashing the throttle on exit will get you a quick time, but only for a handful of laps. Martinsville requires patience and intense concentration.

There isn’t any room to breathe. The minute a driver tops out at 120 miles per hour, it’s hard on the breaks to get the car down to just 60. Then the driver carefully plays with the throttle to power out of the corner without spinning the tires. As the tires age, this becomes increasingly difficult with each passing lap. Too much breaking can result in tire “chatter” in which the rear tires lock up creating a sudden loss of grip and rear end steps out. Too much throttle off the corner can burn the rear tires making it more difficult to find grip on corner entry and exit.

Oh, and it can get very hot inside the car. Last season the temperatures inside the cars at Martinsville reached 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Not exactly your Sunday drive. The constant breaking builds up a massive amount of heat that can cook a driver. Cooling technology has improved over the years with hoses that attach to helmets and built-in cooling packs in the driver’s fire suits.

Last season Austin Dillon had to exit his #3 Chevy and make a run to the medical center after sustaining painful blisters on his backside. As humorous as that may seem, he was close to dehydration and in a lot of pain. The blisters formed after placing ice along his back and chest to help keep him cool. That water melted and gathered at the base of his seat. The heat became so intense that the water originally designed to keep him cool was in fact cooking him while he drove. The constant movement of his legs caused massive blisters to form, forcing him to have an early exit to the race.

Now imagine trying to deal with all these factors while trying to pass the cars in front of you while defending your own position. Martinsville is the ultimate test of patience. It’s tempting to move a guy out of your way, but that same guy may return the favor later in the race. Drivers rarely forget when they’ve been wronged and Martinsville is one of the easiest places to deliver revenge. All it takes is a quick jolt from behind to move a car out of the racing groove, or completely sideways into the wall.

Now it’s time to pick a winner. Last season Martin Truex Jr. won the Spring race under the lights and he’s likely the favorite Saturday night. Truex has emerged as one of the best short track drivers in Cup, earning at least one victory at Martinsville in the last two seasons. If Truex wants to win again, he’ll likely have to beat Team Penske.

Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and most recent Cup winner Joey Logano have finished second, third, and forth in each of the last two Martinsville races. They’re red hot right now with Blaney and Logano already earning a win in 2021.

Chase Elliott won the last Cup race at Martinsville last Fall and finished fifth in the Spring race.

Regardless of where you run the numbers, it’s still anyone’s game at Martinsville. There have been seven different winners to kick off the season in 2021 and there are plenty of drivers capable of adding to that trend.

This is race you won’t want to miss!

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