NASCAR official: Sanctioning body needs 'to work harder' to improve short track racing

A senior NASCAR official says that the sanctioning body needs “to work harder” to improve short track racing after this past weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, made the comments Tuesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio amid continued calls to fix what once was one of the best aspects of the sport.

While Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway provided an emotional high with Hendrick Motorsports finishing 1-2-3 on a day designated to honor its 40th anniversary celebration season, drivers often struggled to pass during the race.

“We’re not naive to this,” Sawyer said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We as NASCAR want our short track package to be better. We want that racing to be at the level that superspeedways and our intermediate racetracks are today.

“I promise you we are working as hard as we can with Goodyear and we need to work harder. That’s the bottom line. We need to work harder to come to a place, where as I said a couple of weeks ago, we need to figure out how to bottle up what we learned at Bristol and also what we learned the first 30 laps at Richmond last week on how that race unfolded.”

NASCAR’s short track racing has faced increased scrutiny since the Next Gen car debuted in 2022 after the racing at intermediate tracks — such as Texas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Cup race — improved significantly.

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The Cup short track races have not seen a similar improvement for the most part. An exception was last month’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Excessive wear forced drivers to manage their tires in ways they had not had to do so in years at short tracks. How it happened, though, was unexpected. NASCAR and Goodyear seek to understand what led to greater tire wear at that track. A tire test at Bristol is scheduled for July.

The first 30 laps of last month’s Richmond race were on wet weather tires due to rain before the event. Those tires wore as the track dried, creating multiple lanes. Once the track was dry, teams went back to their regular tires and the racing reverted to a more single-file structure.

Having tire wear has become a key area for NASCAR to look at with the sanctioning body not willing to increase the horsepower, citing costs and potential interest from manufacturers. Without significant tire wear, drivers are not penalized for going as hard as they can.

“When you can go out on any track, especially short tracks, and you can run it at 10/10ths and the equipment will take it and the tire will take, then you’re taking all the skill set out away from the driver. I promise you, I promise our fans that we are working daily to continue to try to come up with a tire that will give us the short track racing that we’re all looking for.”

In last weekend’s race at Martinsville, Joey Logano ran the first 184 laps on the same set of left side tires and was able to lead despite the rest of the field having fresher left side tires than him.

Also noted in that race was that when Logano caught the back of the field, he ran several laps behind Austin Dillon, unable to lap Dillon, who was running 33rd.

“We couldn’t even pass Austin Dillon for 50 or 60 laps,” Denny Hamlin said this week on his Actions Detrimental podcast. “The last car on the racetrack we could not pass him at the end of stage two.”

Said Logano after last weekend’s race: “Once you lost the lead, nobody was going to pass anybody. The only car I saw passing was (teammate Ryan Blaney). That was pretty impressive. The rest of us just followed each other all day.”

While the 13 lead changes in last weekend’s Cup race were the most for a Martinsville event since the Next Gen car debuted in 2022, three lead changes took place in a six-lap span as Hamlin and Chase Elliott ran side-by-side.

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One driver who worked his way through the field was winner William Byron. He started 18th and led a race-high 88 laps but conceded afterward that “it was really hard to pass.”

With the difficulty to pass, it also means that it is more difficult for drivers to run close to each other and create the beating, banging — and crashing — previously seen at short tracks.

Cautions are down significantly at Martinsville in recent years.

In the five Martinsville races with the Next Gen car, the caution comes out an average of once every 82 laps.

That’s twice as long as it took for the caution flag to wave in the five Martinsville races before the Next Gen era. Those races averaged a caution every 41 laps.

Sawyer cautioned on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that should NASCAR understand how to make the tire better at one short track, it might not carryover to all because the surface at those tracks are different.

“It’s not a one-tire fits all type solution, so we have to continue to work,” Sawyer said. “We’re not resting on anything that we did yesterday. Today, we’re going to be digging on this again and working on solutions and trying to get to a better place.”