Last week, NASCAR took the track by storm as hundreds, if not thousands, of diehard fans lined the banks of the James River for a day of high speeds, heavy metal music, and dangerous competition. On that Sunday, May 5th, William Byron became the first driver to cross the finish line inside the top ten, winning the AAA 500 Monster Energy World Series race by a margin of nearly three minutes over second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson. The action-packed day also featured a number of noteworthy incidents, some of which were less than desirable.
The Over-Under Theoretical Practice
Before we get into the good, the bad, and the ugly, it’s important to establish what exactly occurred at Martinsville Speedway on May 5th. After months of preparing for the event, teams and drivers attended a series of theoretical practice sessions on Friday, May 4th.
Practice runs were held throughout the day, and at some point, everyone involved stopped to take a break, if only for a couple of minutes. During one of these breaks, the drivers went over some of the changes they had made to their cars, specifically in reference to their under-the-hood performance. After speaking with team engineers over the radio, driver Tony Stewart decided to go ahead and hit the track again, but this time, he would do so under theoretical conditions: the conditions that would prevail at the end of the race rather than simply the conditions on the track at the time.
The idea behind over-under theoretical practice is to go as fast as you can while still being able to maintain control of your vehicle. If you go too fast during real practice, you risk hurting yourself or someone else, so it’s important to keep things simple and conservative when it comes to your car’s setup. On the other hand, if you go too slow during theoretical practice, you won’t be able to demonstrate what your car is capable of, and this could lead to disappointment when the real deal arrives. On the surface, this may sound like a no-win situation, but with careful planning and execution, over-under theoretical practice can be a driver’s best friend.
Faster, But More Fragile
One of the most exciting things about the Martinsville Speedway race is that it featured a number of highly skilled, top-tier drivers, all of which were eager to prove they were the best. While waiting for the track to dry, Ken Schrader was driving along, chatting away with some of the other drivers. As they were discussing how the track was warming up, Ken asked Richard Childress about a recent rumor he’d heard: that Martinsville was considering installing a temporary bridge between the turns one and two, effectively halving the track’s distance. Childress dismissed the rumor as “garbage,” but when the conversation turned to how much speed the track was capable of, he became a little less dismissive. Still, Childress was confident he could run faster than any track in the country, even with a shorter distance:
“With no long straightaways and less drag, we should be able to hit a wall,” he said. “And with a little bit of practice, we’ll be hitting it.”
The problem is that the shorter the track, the more susceptible it is to wear out. When NASCAR switched tracks after the winter break, they didn’t just change the surface coating, they changed almost everything about the way the track handled. After four months of not being used, the track was still in pretty good shape, but it had started to show its age, especially going into the turns:
“The track is pretty much a roller coaster now, especially going into turns one and two,” said Mike Bliss, a crew chief. “That’s where all the wear and tear is. If you look back at the first couple of races after we switched tracks, turns one through four are a lot tighter. But that’s what makes it such a great racing track. That’s why we keep coming back.”
The track still had some life left in it, but if someone was planning on going absolutely fast, they might want to think twice. Not only is it dangerous, but if your car starts to slide out of control, there’s no coming back: you’ll crash and potentially hurt yourself or others. The solution, then, is to save that kind of racing for another day. Or perhaps, save it for another place entirely.
A Few Bad Apples
We were lucky enough to be at the race and get a chance to see for ourselves just how dangerous it could be. It was quite an eye-opener. Just before the start of the race, we were walking up the backstretch when a loud bang echoed through the air, followed by the smell of burning rubber. Turns out, Martin Truex Jr. had been hit by a stray bullet while making his way to the starting line. Luckily, it wasn’t serious, and he was able to continue on to victory lane. As much as we would have loved to see another driver take home the checkered flag, safety was priority number one, and with the way things were going, this was one race that they might not have won safely. The bad news didn’t end there, either. Just a couple of minutes after the start of the race, Chase Elliott was running 12th place when he lost control of his car, skidded, and smashed into the inside barrier, severely injuring himself. While Chase was in the hospital, the staff worked hard to save as much of his arm as possible, and it did look like he might make a full recovery. We were very hopeful for Elliott’s sake, but it was a tough pill to swallow. In the end, it was another expensive victory for the team and another bump in the road for Chase.
Another Truck On The Scene
We’d been told all week that the main attraction would be a battle between Johnson and Byron, but a few minutes after the start of the race, we were surprised to see a third truck on the scene. As the race came to its end, and Byron crossed the finish line first, it looked like the Brad Kesla Racing team had put one over on the William Byron Racing team: surprise surprise, it was a truck. Shortly after the race, it was announced that Ryan Blaney had been drafted in to replace Elliott for the rest of the season. We’ll have to wait and see how much stock to put in that one, but it’s still a bit of an upset that Blaney, usually a Sprint Cup driver, had been bumped up a level to take on a Monster Energy Series race. While Blaney finished 13th in the AAA 500, Kesla’s truck was lucky enough to cross the finish line just before the checkered flag dropped: their strategy of using a different car for each race had worked perfectly.
The Full-Bore Blast
When the green flag flew and the race began, there were a couple of things that became immediately apparent. First of all, this was no ordinary stock car race. These drivers were hungry, and they were looking to make a statement. The second thing that became apparent was just how much smoke these cars were generating. Not only did they produce a lot of it, but it seemed to be everywhere: even from the back of the field, you could smell it, and if you looked to your right, your whole view was blocked by a thick gray wall.
This was no ordinary racing event. We’ve been around long enough to know what heavy metal music and loud noise means when applied to a sport, and we knew right away that this was going to be something different. If you’ve been following our blog for a while, then you know that we’ve been around long enough to have seen pretty much everything in NASCAR – and quite frankly, at this point, we’re pretty sure that we don’t want to see anything else. This was more than enough excitement for one day. It was intense, it was fast-paced, and it was totally captivating. This is the kind of stuff that makes us proud to be a part of this sport, and having been there for this portion of the action, we are confident that this is going to be one memorable season for NASCAR. We can’t wait to see what happens next.