This was no ordinary NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.
On a 40-degree night delayed by rain with a car that already generates a tremendous amount of grip compared to its predecessor, the Blue-Emu 400 was a largely procedural track position affair.
Virtually no rubber was laid down on the concrete corners after 400 laps, corner speeds were higher than ever before and there simply wasn’t a lot of passing. The leaders even struggled to put slower cars a lap down.
There was a green flag pit cycle at Martinsville for the first time since November 2016.
All told, it was probably just the perfect storm of conditions to inhibit passing, discourage tire wear or provide any means to shake up the running order throughout Saturday night in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
It’s not the kind of racing runner-up finisher Joey Logano expected this morning.
"I don’t think the racing was bad, but it was definitely harder to pass," Logano said. "I don’t think anyone could really pass without putting a bumper to somebody. It was a lot more challenging and it’s harder to get to the back bumper.
"Like, I was faster than (Austin Dillon) the whole run and I couldn’t get there. I was almost there and would get tight and burn my front tires off, cool them back down and make another run at it, but I just couldn’t get to him. It was harder than I thought it would be to pass. I thought it would be harder, but not that much harder."
His Penske teammate Ryan Blaney says the Next Gen car creates a lot of turbulence and warmer weather wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
"If it was 90 degrees, you still would have been plowing tight behind somebody," Blaney said. "The exits would have been worse. The entry and exit would have been more slick, but that would have been for everybody. When you’re in dirty air, you’re in dirty air. You can’t even get in the corner and roll to a guy to put the bumper to him. …
"You still would have been tight behind someone who is slowing your center down too much to where you couldn’t get a run, so it probably wouldn’t have hurt it being a little hotter, but I wouldn’t blame cold temps on that."
Jeff Gordon thought the temperatures, and how the tire compound reacted to it, played a factor.
"Track temperature, when the track is this cold and it doesn't lay down rubber, the tires just don't give up," Gordon said. "I'd almost say Goodyear has too good of a tire here right now because I think the racers want to see the falloff and be able to see line changes, setup matter over a long run. They're running qualifying laps almost every lap. It just did not fall off near as much as anybody thought it would. That's night racing, and especially a cold night race."
Blaney agreed that Goodyear could probably stand to be more aggressive on their left side tire compound for the return trip to Martinsville in November.
"Probably," Blaney said. "Probably get the left sides wearing a little bit more. The left sides just don’t wear on this car. That’s just kind of how it is, so I know they’ve been playing around with softer lefts and things like that, so go for it. I mean, go way softer, especially on the lefts and see where it gets you."
Watching from the broadcast booth, legendary crew chief Chad Knaus has a working theory, too.
"I feel like our racing has taken a bit of a dive on short tracks," Knaus said. "And you’re going to laugh at this a little bit, but it's when we took away the ride height rules."
His driver analyst, Clint Bowyer emphatically agreed.
"I swear to gosh, I’ve said this a million times," Bowyer said."I’m telling you, you can go back and look, it flipped the switch, at that moment. ... I’m so glad you said that. I’ve preached that for 10 years."
Bowyer wasn't done.
"That’s when it happened," Bowyer said. "And nobody ever says it! I’m so glad you said that. You’re the only person that’s ever agreed with me. I thought I was a complete idiot."
Saturday night race was reminiscent of the races at Martinsville in 2019 when NASCAR used the high downforce rules package with the 750-horsepower tapered spacer in both events. The added grip increased corner speeds and the eight-inch spoiler created a big wake for trailing cars.
Austin Dillon started 23rd and finished third, so passing wasn’t completely impossible, and believes warmer weather would have delivered more action.
"It's freezing cold out here, track grip is super high and if we come back and it's hot and slick, it would be a different race," Dillon said.
The November race is mostly a daytime affair, but temperatures have been all over the place for that event over the years.
"On stage two, with 15 laps to go on the long run, I came from 10 back and passed a lot of cars and that was at end of tire wear," Dillon said. "If it gets hot and slick, it will be a different race."
Richmond was a lackluster short track style race too, and Blaney says it comes back to the wake generated by a leading car.
"Yeah, similar to Richmond," Blaney said. "I didn’t think they were very good following a car, either. They kind of struggled, so it’s pretty unfortunate that was happening here too."
Both Richmond and Martinsville took place in cold wintry weather, but there is a growing sentiment that the Next Gen might not be the best short track car, despite all the progress it has made on intermediate length tracks.
Dillon rejects that notion.
"I don't think that's true at all," Dillon said. "We all remember what we saw at the (LA) Coliseum. That was a hell of a great race. I don't agree with that.
"It's just a freezing cold race, 38 degrees, and I'm never cold getting out of a race car. I have two jackets and a toboggan on. You can have great races when there is tire fall off, and Martinsville can do that, but it has to be hot outside."
For the first time in modern NASCAR Cup Series history, drivers were shifting at Martinsville due to the gear rules on the new transaxle for the Next Gen car. Drivers were shifting up to 1800 times throughout 400 laps, while also trying to hit their marks and toggle their brake biases.
Ross Chastain says there weren’t any crashes because the cars were simply hard to drive.
"What's crazy is that at the end of the runs, I was feathering it off the concrete onto the asphalt," Chastain said. "It was hard to hook the throttle off.
"That was the first time I've experienced that, and I was smiling in the car. Granted, we had a good long run car and could drive by guys late in the run. I was feathering it and still driving by people.
"My right foot is tender right now because I was constantly on the throttle and downshifting to get that blip, launching off third gear."
With that said, Chastain isn't sure all of that is necessary.
"We don't need to be shifting that many times," Chastain said. "That's silly. I understand what they're trying to do. They're trying to keep us in a box. I had a blast. I don't think there were a lot of wrecks because they were just hard to drive. It's hard to drive these cars, and we're just hanging on, and I had a top-five car."
At the same time, Blaney doesn’t think working the gears affected the on-track product whatsoever.
"Everyone is like, 'Oh, you’re shifting and you should be able to get runs on guys,' but everyone is shifting. The guy in front of you is shifting, so you can’t get a run on the guy who is doing the same thing as you, so I don’t know.
"I don’t know if the shifting part really played a role. It’s really what you had to do. If you had tried to run in fourth (gear), you were going nowhere."
Ultimately, Ross Chastain didn’t think the race felt too entirely different than what he would have expected from the Cup Series at Martinsville Speedway.
"I think we're misremembering the cars of the past," Chastain said. "People are saying 'it's hard to pass,' but it's always been hard to pass at Martinsville. Its why people love this place. We have to move people out of the way. It was no different last year. You had to move people out of the way basically.
"I think everyone is remembering the past as better than it was. It was the same as Gen 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. When they built the second car, it was going to be hard for it to pass the first one."