Three NASCAR Cup Series drivers were at Martinsville Speedway Tuesday and Wednesday for a Goodyear test, trying out different tires to find what they like best when the series return to Martinsville in the fall.
Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, and Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard were on hand, driving well into the night Tuesday, and back at it Wednesday afternoon, seeing how different tire compounds and grip levels drive at The Paperclip under different track temperatures.
“We spent probably the first five or six hours yesterday running through different sets of tires, from left sides to right sides that Goodyear had given us,” Blaney told reporters Wednesday. “Today we’re going to do even longer runs with some of the tires we thought were best to see where they go in 70 laps or so. That’s one of the biggest things about this test. There’s times when we can still work on our cars throughout the day but mainly it’s just trying to figure out if we can get a better tire here. Just playing around with that stuff, that’s the main reason for this here. But you can learn some stuff.”
Menard and the Wood Brothers had two more tests scheduled for this season, but both were cancelled, he said, to save money and cut down on redundancy issues. Getting a rare chance to test was important to him and the team to expand their notebook and try things they wouldn’t be able to do on a race weekend.
He said the biggest change came when they transitioned from driving in the 90-degree midday heat to the mid-70s under the lights.
“More grip for sure. We started off yesterday we were running 20.30s, 20.40s, which is relatively slow,” Menard said. “We see a lot of 19.7 laps when we show up for the race in the spring or the fall. So the track was slow and as the sun went down we just picked up speed… several tenths to a half a second, which is normal for a racetrack.”
Driving under the lights was also a good preview for what the drivers expect to see next May when Martinsville holds its first NASCAR Cup Series night race under the permanent LEDs that were installed in 2017. NASCAR announced earlier this year that Martinsville would host a night race on Mother’s Day weekend next May.
That test was Bowyer’s first time ever driving Martinsville at night. He said the lights seemed to make the track look smaller.
“Straightaways didn’t seem as a long and I’m thinking, ‘Man it would be awesome to be able to put a show on under the lights,’” Bowyer said. “It was cool to be on the track last night… I’ve been saying it for a long time. I always keep my motorhome up there on the back straightaway and I think, ‘Man the lights are on right now we ought to be racing.’ … So I think that’ll be a huge gain for the fan. I think the sparks fly and I don’t think there’s a better racetrack to have a night race at than right here at Martinsville. Saturday night short track specials, Friday nights, that’s what we all grew up doing at these short tracks. Beating and banging under the lights, and this track has all of that so why not.”
Bowyer said the test this week was as much about tires as it was learning what would make for the best show for the fans.
“Obviously when you have a Goodyear tire test you’re in search of a tire to put on a good show,” he said. “And what that is, that’s the question. There’s a lot of different answer to that question. I think you have to have a tire that obviously has some fall off which creates a little bit of action within. A guy gets into slipping and sliding a little bit in the corner, has to be put the throttle down, that’s an opportunity to get a pass, put on a show for the fans. At the end of the day that’s what we’re here to do.”
All three drivers are starting to turn their attention from the regular season to the playoffs. While none have a win this season, Blaney and Bowyer both currently have playoff spots. Blaney is in 10th, and Bowyer 15th, with the top 16 moving on. Menard isn’t too far off, currently sitting 19th, 68 points out of the hunt.
For Blaney, while he said he doesn’t feel like his team has to get a win to move on – he has six top-5s, and nine top-10s this season – he’s always chasing victory lane.
“We’ve got a decent cushion, but you’re never safe,” Blaney said. “You can go out and have three really bad races and be biting your nails. But just try to win. I don’t really look at the points too much throughout the regular season. In the playoffs, obviously, you know what spot you’re in but you just try to win races. That’s the best thing. That’s my mindset to just try to win. I don’t really feel pressure. I just try to work hard to get where we need to be. That can sometimes be frustrating when things don’t go your way but you have to look past it and try to focus on the task at hand and that deal.”
Blaney has dropped out of three races this season, and has finishes of 10th, 4th, 13th, 36th, and 6th in the last five races. His hope is the team can get some more consistency at the end of the season.
“We had that great run at New Hampshire a couple weeks ago… and then we struggled really bad at Pocono during the race, and we kind of lucked into a top 10, had a good restart but just trying to be more consistent both weekends,” he said. “Something like that doesn’t really happen to us. It’s rare for us to kind of miss it that bad but you’ll have those. Not every single race is going to go smoothly for you. I think just clean some stuff up on our end and trying to get better towards the end of these races. There’s a lot of races where we start off great and we kind of fade throughout the race, and that’s just keeping up with adjustments, the driver doing his job, and just experience stuff. Hopefully we can clean some of that stuff up here within the last month or so before we get into this last 10 weeks.”
Menard has seen much of the same consistency issues with his team. For him, he knows the car has had speed, it just a matter of putting together a whole race.
“We can start off really good and lose it a little bit throughout,” Menard said. “Kind of our M.O. typically is to come out with a better finish at the end, get a good last restart or something like that. We’ve been making a lot of changes throughout the race, minimizing the adjustments. Getting better track positing is so important these days because it’s so hard to pass with the aero package we have. It’s hard to pass at every race track, so the more we can do to give the guys a better opportunity to have a good pit stop, less adjustments, gain track position, that’s been the key.”
The NASCAR Cup Series will return to Martinsville on October 27, the first race in the playoffs Round of 8.
Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.