NOCO 400 Preview: Short-Track Survival

NOCO 400 Preview: Short-Track Survival

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The NASCAR Cup Series continues their short track schedule this week but returns to the pavement as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Virginia for the NOCO 400. This Martinsville event marks the second short track event in consecutive races. NASCAR has shortened this race from 500 to 400 laps and now uses stages of 80/100/220 laps. Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straight-aways. A couple weeks ago we witnessed tire preservation/fall off and issues with tire wear at Richmond. We will see a similar game played at the Martinsville oval. Brake preservation is the name of the game in Martinsville, because you essentially have two long drag strips with hairpin corners on either end. The oval looks very much like a paperclip when viewed from above, thus the nickname "the paperclip" has taken hold over the years. Taking care of your brakes for the full 400 laps becomes as important as passing on this tricky short track.

Like any bull ring in the Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but getting and maintaining good track position is of the utmost importance. If you get stuck in the back of the field here, you can find yourself a lap down in a matter of minutes from the start or any restart, so teams must place high priority on getting and keeping good track position. You won't be able to

The NASCAR Cup Series continues their short track schedule this week but returns to the pavement as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Virginia for the NOCO 400. This Martinsville event marks the second short track event in consecutive races. NASCAR has shortened this race from 500 to 400 laps and now uses stages of 80/100/220 laps. Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straight-aways. A couple weeks ago we witnessed tire preservation/fall off and issues with tire wear at Richmond. We will see a similar game played at the Martinsville oval. Brake preservation is the name of the game in Martinsville, because you essentially have two long drag strips with hairpin corners on either end. The oval looks very much like a paperclip when viewed from above, thus the nickname "the paperclip" has taken hold over the years. Taking care of your brakes for the full 400 laps becomes as important as passing on this tricky short track.

Like any bull ring in the Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but getting and maintaining good track position is of the utmost importance. If you get stuck in the back of the field here, you can find yourself a lap down in a matter of minutes from the start or any restart, so teams must place high priority on getting and keeping good track position. You won't be able to race your way through traffic and back toward the front as easily here as some other small ovals. Track position will become so important over the course of the race that you will see teams chose either not to pit certain cautions, or to take on two tires in order to grab valuable track position on pit road. All these factors make any Martinsville race a battle of survival and often times the best equipment preservation and pit strategy wins.

Since Martinsville Speedway is like no other track on the NASCAR Cup circuit, we'll have to pay close attention to the loop stats this week. Recent historical statistics at Martinsville will be one of the biggest considerations in our weekly projections. Hot streaks go out the window to a certain extent when we visit this facility, so it's these recent numbers that require close scrutiny. The loop stats in the table below span the last 18 years or 36 races at Martinsville Speedway. 

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin10.61,1221,1912,19013,423104.6
Chase Elliott13.33966189575,568102.2
Kyle Busch12.21,0969051,42913,201100.3
Ryan Blaney9.73363013775,23399.9
Brad Keselowski10.88796678919,51198.2
Joey Logano11.58295191,09810,32997.5
Kevin Harvick13.81,09558148112,83792.3
William Byron14.42541942213,04789.2
Christopher Bell14.71681001591,73787.4
Martin Truex Jr.16.47266371,0169,75185.3
Kyle Larson19.34441511804,80680.3
AJ Allmendinger19.0562166505,54273.8
Alex Bowman19.3237171102,86273.0
Aric Almirola20.2604229755,79272.6
Austin Dillon19.0364138123,37671.8
Chase Briscoe17.069392557968.1
Erik Jones19.41812701,60766.9
Austin Cindric 19.0338040365.3
Bubba Wallace19.618252231,62364.4
Daniel Suarez22.61489401,84562.8

In this event one year ago we saw William Byron completely dominate the event and grab his first-career victory at Martinsville Speedway. That was outside the normal trend here in recent seasons. We've typically seen most Martinsville winners rise late in the event and overcome a more dominant driver in the closing laps. This phenomenon is due in part to pit strategy and also car preservation, saving something for the end. However, Byron soundly broke that trend with his 212-laps led performance of one year ago.

When the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Martinsville Speedway last fall, it would be Christopher Bell sweeping into victory lane for the first time at the historic short track and foiling Kyle Larson for the victory by eight-tenths of a second. Denny Hamlin would dominate most of that race with 203 laps led, but would eventually fade to fifth-place by the checkered flag. We'll take a look at the recent Martinsville stats as well as current short track trends and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Martinsville Speedway in the NOCO 400.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

William Byron – The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been one of the sharpest drivers on the ½-mile Martinsville oval during the past two seasons. Byron earned an impressive victory in this event one year ago, and he's nabbed three Top-5 finishes in his last four Martinsville Speedway starts. He now owns one win, one runner-up finish and an impressive 40-percent Top-5 rate at this short track over a 10-start span. Byron has been sharp on the short tracks thus far in 2023 with a big victory at Phoenix a few weeks ago and 117 laps led at Richmond recently before bad luck relegated him to a poor finish. The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has the recent Martinsville Speedway resume and momentum on short tracks to indicate a possible dominant performance in Sunday's NOCO 400.    

Christopher Bell – Coming off the big win on Bristol dirt this past weekend, Bell comes into Virginia riding a lot of momentum. He's now the point standings leader and really killing it on a variety of tracks. The last time the Cup Series visited Martinsville last October, Bell walked away the impressive race-winner. He led 150 laps and captured his first-career win at the Virginia short track. His career stats at the oval are not overly impressive to this point, but he's now a proven Martinsville winner. Short tracks this season have been a sweet spot for this driver and team. Bell owns sixth- and fourth-place finishes at Phoenix and Richmond and as previously mentioned, is coming off the big win on the half-mile Bristol oval on dirt. Bell seems like an unmovable force coming to Martinsville Speedway.

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing ace has become a pretty dominant force at the Martinsville short track since 2014. His last nine seasons of racing at Martinsville has yielded well over 1,000 laps led, one victory, one runner-up finish, eight Top-5 and 14 Top-10 finishes. Logano rides a seven-race Martinsville Top-10 streak with over 250 laps led coming into this weekend's action. The driver of the No. 22 Ford Mustang is looking to hit the reset button after a disappointing Bristol dirt race outing this past week. With an average finish of 6.0 across his last four Martinsville Speedway starts, we're confident Logano will race with the leaders and challenge for the win in Sunday's 400-lap battle. 

Kyle Larson – Larson won the pole and led a lot of laps on the Bristol dirt this past Sunday, but a scuffle between he and Ryan Preece would lead to a damaged No. 5 Chevrolet and Larson's chances to win down the drain. He'll look to rebound at Martinsville Speedway this weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been close to winning at this oval on a couple occasions recently. He finished inside the Top 5 in this event two years ago, and he won the pole and finished runner-up here in October last year. Larson is still winless at Martinsville, but he's inching closer to that breakthrough which could happen this Sunday. He's been arguably the strongest short track performer to this point in the season with his Richmond victory and Phoenix Top-5 performance.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Kyle Busch – Busch is a two-time Martinsville winner with the last of those coming in 2017. His 21-career Top-10 finishes at the track are second only to Denny Hamlin among all active drivers and checks in at a dazzling 60-percent rate. Four of his last six Martinsville starts have netted Top-10 finishes, so he's performing at a high level there right now. The move to Richard Childress Racing this season could help bolster the speed and excellence to get Busch back into victory lane here. He's an outside contender, but don't discount that from happening Sunday. At the very least we should see the No. 8 Chevrolet race among the leaders and collect a Top-10 finish at the conclusion of the NOCO 400.        

Denny Hamlin – No other driver has as much knowledge and success at Martinsville Speedway as does Hamlin. His five-career Martinsville victories, 17 Top 5's and close to 2,200 laps led lead all active drivers at this facility. In his last start at the Virginia short track last October, the Joe Gibbs Racing star led 203 laps and finished fifth-place. That only bolstered his career Top-5 rate here to an amazing 50-percent. Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team are off to a slow start to this season, but this race track almost always holds good results for him. It could be the event and performance that kicks Hamlin's slow start to the 2023 season.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney is mired in a three-race Top-10 slump coming to Martinsville Speedway, but he'll hope to reverse his fortunes at a short track where he's been very successful. He's grabbed six Top-5 finishes in his last eight starts at the half-mile Virginia oval. Those performances have lowered his career average finish at the facility to a strong 9.7. Blaney was a runner-up finisher in both Martinsville races in 2020, so he's painfully close to breaking through to victory lane at this short track. Blaney nabbed fourth- and third-place finishes here last season in the No. 12 Ford. His recent runner-up finish in Phoenix is a good preview of the potential he possesses for this 400-lap battle at Martinsville Speedway.

Alex Bowman – Bowman won this event one year ago for his first-career Martinsville victory. There were plenty of signs that breakthrough was coming heading into that event. Bowman now has Top 10's in three of his last five Martinsville Speedway starts and that's beginning to reverse some poor trends he set at the track earlier in his career. His career Top-10 rate at the half-mile oval is still at just 31-percent but we would encourage looking past that number in favor of recent performances. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has been dialed-in on short tracks so far this season with ninth- and eighth-place Phoenix and Richmond performances. Another Top 10 Sunday in Virginia for the No. 48 Chevrolet team is a high probability.                 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Martinsville & solid upside

Tyler Reddick – The 23XI Racing youngster is fresh off an impressive runner-up finish on the Bristol dirt and he has four Top-5 finishes in his last five starts. Over that span Reddick has vaulted from 33rd in the driver standings to his current seventh-place spot. Short tracks have been his specialty during his brief but impressive Cup Series career. Reddick has just one Top-10 finish so far at Martinsville Speedway, but he would seem poised for a breakout starting this weekend. The driver of the No. 45 Toyota nabbed an impressive third-place finish at the Phoenix short track a few weeks ago and just grabbed runner-up on Bristol dirt as mentioned earlier.

Ross Chastain – Chastain returns to the scene of his "Hail Melon" maneuver that netted him a Top-5 finish at Martinsville Speedway last October and into the championship round of the Chase at Phoenix. The Trackhouse Racing veteran will be hard pressed to improve upon that surprising performance, however, we must note that Chastain grabbed two Top-5 finishes at the Virginia short track last season. While those were his first-career Top 5's at Martinsville, it's a sign of the state of his No. 1 Chevrolet team. Chastain is looking to bounce back from a poor Bristol dirt performance and his third-place Richmond performance a couple weeks ago should be a good indicator of potential this Sunday.

Chase Briscoe – It's been a bit of an inconsistent season for the No. 14 Ford team, but the short tracks have held up pretty well thus far for Briscoe. He's fresh off a fifth-place finish on the Bristol dirt and he collected seventh- and 12th-place finishes at both Phoenix and Richmond. The average finish across that short track span is 8.0 and pretty impressive heading into Martinsville for the NOCO 400 this weekend. Briscoe has four-career Cup Series starts at Martinsville Speedway and he grabbed his first two Top-10 finishes there last season. The young driver grabbed a pair of ninth-place finishes with 25 laps led in the race at the small oval last October. Briscoe has the current momentum and short track history to turn in a strong performance in the NOCO 400.        

Kevin Harvick – Harvick has the longest Martinsville resume of any active driver. In his 43 starts at the Virginia short track, he's nabbed one victory and 20 Top-10 finishes (47-percent). This track is not one of his better short tracks, but he's still pretty consistent here. Nine of Harvick's last 11 starts at Martinsville Speedway have netted Top-15 finishes and he's not recorded a DNF at the small oval since 2012. That's consistency you can rely on in fantasy racing games. However, he's led no laps during that recent string. We doubt any serious chance of an upset win, but Harvick should be good enough to forge a hard-fought Top-10 finish at the Virginia short track.   

Michael McDowell – The driver of the No. 34 Ford doesn't have the career history at Martinsville Speedway that would endorse a fantasy start. However, last October he forged the best finish he's had at the short track in quite some time with a steady 17th-place finish in the Xfinity 500. McDowell has presented good short track results so far this season with 13th-, sixth- and 11th-place results so far. That works out to a steady 10.0 average finish on tracks one-mile in size and under so far. His 11th-place finish on the Bristol dirt this past Sunday was particularly impressive given the career-long struggles he's had at that short track.

Bubba Wallace – Wallace's 12th-place finish on the Bristol dirt this past week may have signaled the reversal of what's been an inconsistent season so far. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota grabbed 16th- and eighth-place finishes at Martinsville Speedway last season. Those results are the best he's achieved at the half-mile Virginia oval. We cannot easily forget that Wallace won his first of two truck series victories at Martinsville in 2013. Those two wins were what put the young driver on the map and would eventually propel him into NASCAR's top division. Wallace loves this oval and when he has a good car a Top-15 finish is a good likelihood. He makes a good fantasy racing selection in the deeper tiers of weekly lineup leagues.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. – The three-time Martinsville Speedway winner has been a top performer at the track since 2015 after his big move to Furniture Row Racing. However, Truex experienced a power outage here since the launch of the Next-Gen car last season. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran limped to uncharacteristic 22nd- and 20th-place finishes at Martinsville Speedway last season. Simply maintaining the lead lap was unachievable for Truex. His 17th- and 11th-place finishes at Phoenix and Richmond so far are still outside of norms for what we expect for the No. 19 Toyota team. There are simply too many question marks and too much uncertainty to roll him in fantasy games for the NOCO 400.     

Noah Gragson – The young driver has had a tough season so far with just one Top-15 finish to this point. Gragson limps into Martinsville Speedway a distant 31st-place in the driver standings and looking to reverse his fortunes at the half-mile oval. It will be a tough proposition considering that the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has finishes of 29th-, 37th- and 33rd-place on ovals one-mile or less in size this season. Gragson does have the luxury of one-career Cup Series start at Martinsville to prepare him for this weekend, but it was a distant 25th-place finish at the track last October in the No. 48 Chevrolet in relief of Alex Bowman. We consider Gragson and this race team a high-risk fantasy racing option at Martinsville.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Coming off the Top-5 finish on the Bristol dirt this past week, we're calling to fade Stenhouse and the No. 47 team at Martinsville Speedway. The veteran driver's vast background in dirt racing led to that Top 5, but this week we return to the pavement for the NOCO 400. In 20-career starts at the Virginia short track, Stenhouse has just two Top-10 finishes and the last of those came in 2017. His average finish at the oval stands at a subpar 25.1 across those starts. Since the move to the new generation stock car, Stenhouse collected 27th- and 22nd-place finishes at Martinsville last season. We expect this veteran driver and team to underperform in this 400-lap battle.        

Daniel Suarez – While Trackhouse Racing propelled Ross Chastain to Top-5 finishes in both Martinsville Speedway races last year, Suarez wasn't quite as fortunate. He struggled on the challenging short track in 2022. His 29th- and 12th-place finishes at the speedway last season fell in line with his career numbers at the track. With just two Top-10 finishes in 12 starts (17-percent) and a 22.5 average finish, this oval is not one of his best. Short tracks have been pretty brutal for Suarez thus far this season with 22nd-, 23rd- and 25th-place finishes at Phoenix, Richmond and Bristol. It's best to keep this driver and team on the fantasy bench this week and redeploy Suarez on a larger or intermediate size oval that's coming up in the schedule.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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