In the still young 2017 season, NASCAR is trying to find reasons for fans to get excited. First, there was the implementation of the new stage format. Pre-determined cautions with points awarded to the top 10 drivers mid-race made for some initial curiosity at Daytona International Speedway. However, stage racing has mostly led to more aggressive pit strategies rather than on-track battles for position.
Indeed, with ratings sagging over the next few weeks, NASCAR needed a reason for people to tune in to the races. The fracas between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano at Las Vegas Motor Speedway generated considerable buzz, but it did not generate a noticeable increase in viewership the following weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Kyle Larson’s triumph at Auto Club Speedway, as well as Chase Elliott’s strong start to the year, gave NASCAR an opportunity to promote some of its young stars. Yet to the sanctioning body’s dismay, no format change, hurt feelings or emerging drivers have created much positive momentum for the 2017 season.
Then, NASCAR made its first trip of the season to Martinsville Speedway, and the Southern Virginia short track did not disappoint.
The STP 500 included a little bit of everything: exciting stage conclusions, frustrated drivers, and young talent on display. But unlike the other Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races of 2017, there was no major headline coming out of Martinsville, other than that the racing was superb.
It is true that the stage format did add some excitement to the race. The conclusion of the first stage at Lap 130 came after a short green flag run. With the field still bunched up after a restart, every driver near 10th place was fighting hard to get whatever points they could earn. Having points on the line at that moment resulted in a moment of hard racing that would not have happened under last year’s format.
The ending of the second stage was even more exciting. Busch appeared to have the top spot locked up, but he was having trouble working his way through lapped traffic. With just a few laps to go before the end of the stage, Busch moved Ricky Stenhouse Jr. out of the way, putting the No. 17 a lap down. Yet coming to the green and white checkered flag, Stenhouse returned the favor and unlapped himself. Meanwhile, Elliott snuck past Busch and took the stage win for himself.
Having the stage format at Martinsville worked about as well as NASCAR could have wanted. While there was a similar amount of fighting for positions in the closing laps of the stages at Daytona, splitting the race up affected pit strategies the most. Everywhere else, most drivers have not been close enough to each other to display a harder sense of racing immediately before the end of each stage. Yet there is nowhere to hide at Martinsville. As Busch found out, even the leader cannot get away from other drivers who have the power to change the outcome of a race.
Additionally, there were no deliberate wrecks or pit road brawls at Martinsville, yet Sunday’s event was still a reminder that racing is a contact sport. Aside from Busch’s and Stenhouse’s battle, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Blaney swapped paint and frustration during the course of the race. Danica Patrick had hard battles with both JTG Daugherty Racing drivers. Yet through all the bent fenders and cut tires, nobody really tried to ruin anyone else’s day, and there were no post-race festivities similar to those at Las Vegas. If some of the MENCS drivers are a bit upset with each other after this one, it seems unlikely that those hard feelings will carry over to the next few races.
The young drivers of the Cup Series also made their presence known. Elliott was probably the most impressive, running consistently in the top five throughout the afternoon at a track that has not been kind to him in his brief career. Kyle Larson put on a good show once again, demonstrating great short run speed before fading late. Austin Dillon also made a late charge to secure his first top-five finish of the season.
However, all three aspects of Sunday’s race, the stages, tempers and contact, and young stars, were complimentary to the overall story. That is because the biggest story at Martinsville was good, hard, racing, exemplified by Busch and Brad Keselowski over the last 100 laps. Both drivers spent lap-after-lap running nose to tail, dueling for the lead, until Keselowski made the decisive pass on Lap 458. After coming close at Martinsville several times in the last few seasons, Keselowski and the No. 2 team earned a hard-fought win.
Ultimately, the only thing that will turn NASCAR’s ratings around are more days like Martinsville. High-quality racing was at center stage on Sunday, not race formats, controversy, or young drivers. Most importantly, Martinsville put on a great show without the influence of a playoff or the sanctioning body’s creation of a “Game 7 moment.”
Certainly, Sunday’s race had playoff implications, but it is doubtful that the postseason was anywhere near the front of Keselowski’s or Busch’s mind in the closing laps. All they were focused on was winning that grandfather clock.
If NASCAR’s solution to producing more races like Martinsville is to keep tweaking the MENCS aero package, then good. If the solution is to add more short tracks to the schedule, even better. Yet it should be clear that no amount of format changes or other sideshow will help NASCAR’s fan base grow like the one thing that matters above all else, good racing.