The old girl hardly looks like herself these days. There is no denying it, and no way to sugar coat it: the Virginia paper clip, a short track that could always be counted on for a good day at the races, has had a rough few years.
Action is down. Passing is hard to come by. Storylines (excluding the fall race where the playoff system does that for you) have been few and far between. But that happens when the racing has been less than entertaining.
The theme continued on Saturday night. There were four leaders with two Hendrick Motorsports teammates – Chase Elliott and William Byron – combining to lead 397 of 403 laps. The winning pass came not on the racetrack, but pit road when Byron’s No.24 team bested Elliott’s No.9 group. Up until that point, Elliott had led the race’s first 185 laps.
It’s easy to blame what occurred Saturday on a few different variables. It was freezing in Ridgeway, Virginia. That body-numbing cold that sets in after only a few minutes. In the low 30s, there was not just rain but snow and even sleet before the green flag. The track didn’t take rubber and walking down pit road after the race looking out at the racing surface, you might have thought 403 laps hadn’t been run yet. Goodyear tires probably better resembled hockey pucks.
In addition to the weather and a tire that didn’t fall off, there was the car. Next Gen does not seem to be taking well to short tracks. The purpose-built Los Angeles Coliseum was OK, although that might have been because the blinders that come with a new venue. Phoenix, Richmond and Martinsville, were not.
A late restart and first-time winner saved Phoenix. Nothing worth remembering happened at Richmond, except for the racing purists who love comers and goers, tire fall off, and race strategy factoring into the ending. There’s nothing wrong with races like Richmond, but they aren’t going to make the highlight reel in hopes of enticing fans to buy tickets.
This brings us back to Saturday at Martinsville. There were two natural cautions all night and even an overtime restart that failed to deliver anything that could have changed the lasting impression of the night.
So, while it’s easy to look at everything that seemingly went against putting on a good race this last time, what was the reason for all the others there recently?
Last fall Elliott and Denny Hamlin combined to lead 392 of 501 laps at Martinsville. Elliott and Ryan Blaney combined for 43 out of 500 laps led in the spring of 2021, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano combined for 366 of 500 laps led in the spring 2020 race, Truex led 464 of 500 laps in the fall 2019 race, Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps in the spring of 2019 (pictured above), and Logano led 309 of 500 laps in the fall of 2018.
Martinsville, as far as the Cup Series goes, is not producing. And granted, not every race will be memorable, but this is a dramatic turn of events for a track that was always an easy must-watch.
The question NASCAR faces is whether they are concerned enough to look into what, if anything, could be done to help Martinsville or take the risk of letting fans continue to watch a less than desirable show.