The first short track of the season, Martinsville Speedway, couldn’t come at a better time for NASCAR. The sport’s new aero package is under fire, limiting lead changes under green-flag conditions. The West Coast swing missed out on the momentum from February’s Daytona 500; the sport suffered through a month of declining ratings and attendance. Major teams like Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing continue to shop for additional sponsorship with championship-contending teams.
But Martinsville, on the docket this weekend, always finds a way to cure what ills the sport. Jeff Gordon’s victory here in the fall of 2015, his final one on the Cup level, was the best race all year. People felt the same about Jimmie Johnson’s triumph last fall, a springboard to what would be a record-tying seventh Cup Series title. The sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won here as recently as the fall of 2014 and could easily stop his top-10 finish drought this weekend. (He’s yet to earn one in 2017).
On paper, the paperclip-shaped oval gives NASCAR fans everything they want. Gone is the aero dependence preventing passing on the larger tracks. Speeds of less than 100 miles an hour allow bumping and banging to come back into play; rumpled sheet metal can be acceptable for cars hoping to reach Victory Lane. Drivers shove each other out of the way, a 500-lap game of bumper cars where a caution taking out multiple favorites could lurk at every turn. Add in pit strategy, worn tires, and wild restarts to get one of the most unpredictable races all year.
That’s what we’ve always said; we assume short tracks fix the sport. What’s interesting is that the Nielsen ratings and FOX tell us another tale. This race will be the first main event of the season to be broadcast on the smaller market offered by FOX Sports 1. Last year, that took viewership of well over eight million from the previous race, Fontana, and cut it by roughly half. The small market of rural Virginia, it seems isn’t enough to make national companies bite on high commercial rates. So the race gets shoved to the back burner, along with potential NASCAR marketing ops and crucial millennial fan support.
As for the track itself? Blame a depressed economy down in southern Virginia. Worry about an older fan base upset about high prices. Heck, point the finger at NASCAR CEO Brian France if you wish. But a race that critics trumpet as one of the best never quite sells out anymore. For a track that’s one of the smallest on the circuit, empty seats there hurt more than at a place five times its size.
We’ve seen this pattern from fans before. Rockingham, one of the sport’s most historic venues, came back on the schedule for the Truck Series a few years back. Old school fans were delighted and claimed the sport was reconnected with “its roots.” But the track didn’t last long. After solid attendance the first year, the race struggled to attract both sponsors and attention, off the NASCAR schedule again as quickly as it came back on.
Saying you appreciate tradition is one thing. Supporting it with your wallet is another level altogether. We’ll see how many fans wave the NASCAR flag at Martinsville this weekend.
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chip Ganassi Racing
Kyle Larson, featured in this space last week finally cashed in on Victory Lane at Fontana last weekend. His average finish over the past month is an eye-popping 1.75. But the points leader is joined near the top by teammate Jamie McMurray. An average finish of 13.4 through five races is Jamie Mac’s best since 2004, picking up three top-10 finishes and sitting sixth in Cup Series points. McMurray also has led 13 laps this season, a far cry from 2016 where he made the Chase without getting up front even once.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
What is wrong with the sport’s defending champ? Johnson has just one top-10 finish and was a disappointing 21st at Fontana. He never came close to contention at one of his best tracks, close to his heart and his hometown of El Cajon, Calif. One of the problems behind the No. 48 team’s demise has been qualifying; an average start of 21.8 is easily the worst of his career. Without a single top-10 start, he’s mired to run in midpack in a year where cautions are limited and track position is key with the new aero package.
Stewart-Haas Racing dropped their appeal on a 10-point penalty that also will leave Kevin Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers suspended. Daniel Knost will fill in for Childers this weekend at Martinsville after NASCAR discovered an unapproved track bar assembly on the No. 4 car in Phoenix. Said Harvick on SIRIUS XM Radio this week, “It's kind of like growing up as a kid – sometimes you get in trouble and you have to suffer the consequences."
On the other hand, Team Penske will appeal a penalty given to Brad Keselowski after he failed post-race inspection at Phoenix. The consequences were harsh – a 35-point penalty and a three-week suspension put in place for crew chief Paul Wolfe. The good news for the No. 2 team is, no matter the result they’re all but locked into the playoffs courtesy an early-season win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Crew chief Dave Rogers for Joe Gibbs Racing will be taking a leave of absence from the No. 19 Toyota effective this weekend. The departure, for personal reasons, leaves Scott Graves in charge of rookie Daniel Suarez.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes in the last four races. By comparison, the Cup Series had 81 during that same stretch in 2016.
Average finish for Matt Kenseth through five Cup Series races. That’s left him 25th in Cup points despite two top-10 finishes and a third at Atlanta.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
We thought Jimmie Johnson would get back on track last weekend courtesy a strong effort at Fontana last year. Maybe second time’s the charm? Kyle Busch dominated Martinsville last spring, leading 352 laps en route to his first career win at the track. After a horrific career start at this facility he’s got runs of fifth, first, and fifth in his last three Martinsville races. Can this weekend be the one an up-and-down No. 18 Toyota team turns upward for good?
If not Busch, then I’d turn to either Johnson or Denny Hamlin. It’s hard to pick against either one considering they’ve combined for 13 of 22 victories at the track since Hamlin moved up to the series full-time in 2006.
We talked about how well Jamie McMurray has been running as of late. Why not use up one of his starts on this short track? He’s got a second-place run here, from the fall of 2015, and earned three top-10 finishes at Martinsville in his last four starts. The McDonald’s Chevy qualifies well here, earning eight consecutive top-20 starting spots and that’s always the key to running up front here. Track position still proves crucial despite a 500-lap race.
Don’t count out Front Row Motorsports at David Ragan at this type of racetrack. Ragan earned a top 10 with the No. 38 team in the fall of 2014 and earned a fifth with Joe Gibbs Racing in the spring of the following year. His average finish is nothing special at Martinsville (22.0) but don’t be fooled. This race is one of survival and FRM focuses on these types of tracks to get their best results.
What Vegas Thinks
According to vegasinsider.com, Kevin Harvick is currently the Martinsville favorite with 13/2 odds to take the win. Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, and Kyle Busch fall in behind.
What I Think
Busch needs a weekend to turn his season around. It just so happens Martinsville is up next. I think he defends the spring Martinsville title and does a little bumping and banging with rival Logano in the process.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)