April 15, 2024

Why Tiny Martinsville May Be Meanest Track on NASCAR Schedule


  • Many drivers rank the .526-mile paperclip-shaped oval at Martinsville, Va., as among the toughest tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
  • Richard Petty won at Martinsville 15 times, and Darrell Waltrip scored 11 victories to lead all drivers.
  • Denny Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville, called the track “a beast on its own.”

Short and slow. Old and flat. All adjectives that describe NASCAR’s tiniest short track, Martinsville Speedway.

The general perception is that Martinsville, roughly similar to many of the half-miles drivers encountered on their routes to the Cup Series, should be relatively easy to negotiate. However, many drivers rank the .526-mile paperclip-shaped oval, the only track remaining on the Cup regular-season schedule from the inaugural 1949 season, as among the toughest.

Among the reasons:

  1. Dozens of drivers seeking to place their cars in limited spaces.
  2. The length of the workday in a 500-lap race (Sunday’s Cup race is set for 400 laps; the November 3 race is 500).
  3. The droning, repetitive nature of a long race on a very short track. If you last to race’s end in a 500-lapper, you’ll make 1,000 turns.
  4. Passing can be painfully hard. Often, it’s about gaining an inch or two lap after lap before finally getting inside the other driver’s left fender to create a side-by-side battle.
  5. Pit road. One of the most claustrophobic in the series. The No. 1 pit box, with an easy exit, is coveted.
  6. Anger. It’s easy for the too-close-for-comfort racing at Martinsville to create road rage, and fender exchanges between drivers can produce multi-car wrecks that often envelop the innocent.

“It’s different,” said defending Cup champion Ryan Blaney, who won last October’s three-hour, 30-minute race at Martinsville. “It’s so finicky how it works and what you need there to be good. Starting there in trucks and my first couple years in Cup, I couldn’t find my way at all. It takes a while to kind of get your feel.

nascar cup series xfinity 500

Chris Graythen//Getty Images

There’s not much room for making bold passes at Martinsville.

“In 2017 it just clicked. Ok, I kind of understand now what I need to go fast. You just need one good race and it kind of clicks. It’s a completely different beast.”

Some drivers figure it out and then become experts. Richard Petty won at Martinsville 15 times, and Darrell Waltrip scored 11 victories. Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are among the track’s modern masters.

“Martinsville is more about more finesse, easing it down in the corner,” Blaney said. “Finding your own rhythm there. Fifty laps into a run and onward, you find yourself in a little bit of a trance, making laps and adjusting to what the track wants.

“Trying to make 500 laps around there is tough. You’re never not going to have an issue. You’re going to get run into. I put it into my head that it’s just Martinsville. You’re going to get run into. If you’re hit at lap 150 to 200 and get upset, you can’t really hold that for the next 300 laps. Put it behind you and get over it.”

Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville, called the track “a beast on its own. I can’t correlate it to any other short track. Tight corners. It is just very different than the flowy Richmond-type short track.”

Former Cup champion Kyle Larson, who has won at virtually every sort of track and in so many different kinds of cars, said he experienced the hard learning curve that so many others have faced at Martinsville.

“It used to be probably the toughest track for me, and still probably is in the top two or three toughest places,” he said. “Richmond and Martinsville don’t suit the kind of style that I learned growing up in sprint cars and stuff.

“I think everybody assumes with a short-track that it must translate 100 percent [like other short tracks]. But the driving style at a sprint car track is more like an intermediate – fast speeds, not a lot of brake. Where at Martinsville and Richmond, you’re like slowing down and trying to hit this mark all the time, which is difficult for me. So yeah, it’s tough.”

Lettermark

Mike Hembree has covered auto racing for numerous media outlets, including USA Today, NASCAR Scene, NBC Sports, The Greenville News and the SPEED Channel. He has been roaming garage areas and pit roads for decades (although the persistent rumor that he covered the first Indianapolis 500 is not true). Winner of numerous motorsports and other media awards, he also has covered virtually every other major sport. He lives near Gaffney, South Carolina and can be convinced to attend Bruce Springsteen concerts if you have tickets. 



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