Why it's old Martinsville but Different with the Next Gen

The new car has dramatically changed how the oldest track on the schedule races.


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In any other universe, Denny Hamlin would be the general favorite heading into the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night.

This is no longer an ordinary universe.

Despite winning five races, posting 22 top-10s and recording a 10.2 average finish in 32 starts across a variety of different traditional stock cars, it’s now a fair question to wonder if the Next Gen will strip Hamlin of every advantage that has made him great over the past two decades.

It’s a fair question because his own crew chief, Chris Gabehart, pondered the question last weekend at Richmond Raceway too.

"We took 80 horsepower away from him, gave him a two-inch wider car, it’s 200 pounds heavier, has a higher center of gravity and better brakes," Gabehart said. "He’s going to go to Martinsville in the first 10 laps and be as lost as last year’s Easter egg.

"He was so honed-in on perfection of what that car was for so many years. This car is going to be wildly different. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun for you watch, why you’re seeing great racing. But golly, it’s a lot of learning for these guys, for sure."

It was just a 15-minute practice session, followed by a two-lap qualifying effort, but Hamlin didn’t look like the master of Martinsville anymore. He will start 25th after qualifying but still has confidence that his skillset will carry over to Saturday night.

"I suspect that we can still take our same techniques and be pretty good here," Hamlin said. "But we will have to change some things. I know that there's little things that people don’t know like tires.

"Tires is the biggest thing that contributes to the racing that we have today we used to have a set of tires that if you get 15 or 20 laps on them, and they just blow off and when I say blow off, like there's no grip in them. … But you'll still see the guys that have found ways to win here I think find ways to win again."

To his point, a lot of drivers were locking up the tires in practice and qualifying on a very cold afternoon where grip was minimal.

"It's certainly different," Harrison Burton said. "We keep locking up the left front. We put a round and a half of rear brake in it and it just wasn't enough. I locked up in 3 and 4 in both laps in qualifying. I have to look at the data and see what I did wrong."

Shifting is different, too. Pause and let that sink in for a second. They’re shifting at Martinsville Speedway!

"How in the world are we shifting at Martinsville," Kurt Busch said. "It's either awesome or its insane."

It certainly has drivers looking for more busier behind the wheel than ever before at the historic half-mile.

"Four times, a lap," Tyler Reddick said.

Is that something he has ever done under any other circumstances at Martinsville before?

"I think I did it in one of the old NASCAR games in like 2008 or 2009," Reddick said.

So, that’s a no.

Did he see it coming?

"Before I got to know this car and how the Clash went, I would have said no," Reddick said. "But now that I’ve gotten to know the car, and seeing how the temperatures might be, it's not really a surprise."

That has pole winner Chase Elliott a little worried about reliability and durability on Saturday night.

"Shifting is a very real thing now," Elliott said. "Down in every corner entry and up in every corner exit. That’s a whole lot of shifting. You get in the flow and it just starts to come natural to me after a few corners.

"Hopefully, the parts and pieces are prepared for it. That’s a lot to ask out of the car. We did it at Phoenix a little bit but not quite like 400 laps at Martinsville. "

The big brakes and wider, lower profile tires have also changed how Cup Series drivers are attacking Martinsville this weekend. The set-up was best articulated by Ryan Blaney.

"You're going to get in the corner a little bit harder, a little bit faster," Blaney said. "You're going to be able to abuse your stuff, your brakes a little bit more than you would have in the past. The race is shorter, 100 laps shorter, so you can abuse your stuff.

"It's still going to be the same Martinsville as before. You're going to be fighting for the bottom. It's going to be cold, so unfortunately no rubber will be laid down. It's hard to tell if you'll need to save this tire more. It's hard to tell."

There will be no brake falloff whatsoever, eliminating any need to manage equipment from that standpoint as well. Because the car is so new and there is so little data available, simulation doesn’t really accurately prepare teams for race weekends yet either.

At the same time, Elliott still feels like he’s racing at Martinsville and expects the final running order to look like the usual contenders for any other race at the paperclip over the years.

"It’s very much Martinsville of old," Elliott said. "It doesn’t feel that much different as far as us and the track. Setup wise, with the new car, we’re just having to find new ways to get to the same place we’ve always been.

"But altogether, it feels like Martinsville should."