MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The NASCAR Cup Series is prepared for wet-weather racing on its shortest tracks this season. The question is whether the series and its drivers are ready to do it this weekend.
Forecasts for Sunday’s NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) appear promising for a dry start on the 0.526-mile track. But showers may move into the area in the late afternoon, providing the intriguing possibility of running on Goodyear’s wet-weather tires on an oval for the first time in Cup history.
The good news is that the sanctioning body got its first taste of real-world experience in Friday night’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race. With rain soaking the track ahead of the green flag, NASCAR officials decided to start the race with their competitors on wet-weather tires. Before the green flag, the track’s concrete corners were largely dried, while the asphalt straightaways remained damp.
“I think, all in all, it was a success,” said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition. “There were a lot of things that we learned. The way we executed getting the wets on, that worked out well. We got started. I think the big learning that we’ve got to work through and make sure we’re executing this properly is when we have a wet or damp pit road and keeping that as safe as possible.
“Going back and forth between wet and dries, does that need to be a competitive pit stop? Or does that need to be a non-competitive pit stop? We’ve still got to work through that to make sure we’re getting to the right place.”
Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain both competed in Friday’s Truck Series event and applauded the tire, which was run for approximately 25 laps. A competition caution was called by officials at Lap 27 as NASCAR deemed the track dry enough to mandate a swap to the traditional slicks.
But more rain entered the area as the night progressed, leading to two red flags and a premature finish to the event, calling it over at Lap 125 of 200. NASCAR hesitated to use the second set of wet tires with heavier rain in the area, but teams thought conditions were race-able.
“I think the biggest (piece of feedback) was that we could have been a little more aggressive,” Sawyer said. “The teams thought we could have raced, maybe. Even at 11:30 last night, they thought we could have went. And once you get that late in the day — we looked at the weather forecast. We were (scheduled for) 45 minutes of pretty good rain. And then we’re probably looking at another 15 to 20 minutes to get the track in a place where we could actually go green.
“So that was really the decision-making (Friday) night what to call it at 11:15, Lap 125, where if you get into a day race and you’re mid-afternoon, late afternoon, early evening, you have some opportunities there to maybe continue on.”
Kyle Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion, participated in a wet-weather test at Martinsville during his title-winning campaign.
“It was honestly better than I thought it would be,” Larson said of his 2021 laps, “but you’re going so slow. I would be nervous to go to New Hampshire or something with it — or really anywhere besides Martinsville, but I guess until you do it, you don’t know. … I think for Martinsville, if it’s not too wet or even raining, maybe I think it’d be OK.”
23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin is a five-time winner at Martinsville and kept a watchful eye on the Truck event. The product left him satisfied with NASCAR’s precautions in easing into uncharted territory, noting Friday provided “a perfect scenario” to try.
“I think from the very beginning, they (officials) said that this is a tire that can get them back to racing 20, 30 minutes early, and I thought that it did that,” Hamlin said. “Certainly, it seemed like when the track was fully damp, they weren’t really comfortable with running them in those conditions, which I probably agree with.”
The hesitancy comes with good reason. The Cup Series raced in full rain conditions in May 2021 at Circuit of The Americas, which led to poor visibility and subsequent accidents in the aftermath.
“We learned so much at Circuit of The Americas a couple of years ago about racing in a monsoon, if you will, and we won’t do that,” Sawyer said. “That’s never been the goal for the short-oval, wet-weather package. And we didn’t last night. We didn’t race in the rain.
“Now, that doesn’t mean down the road we couldn’t. But that was never the goal. From the start, it was more to get us going quicker or to be able to get back to racing faster in the middle of an event.”
That brings the focus back to Sunday’s Cup Series race. Taking the green flag on slicks with impending weather presents a different scenario from Friday when the Truck Series put wets on before the green.
“Hypothetically, we could throw the caution and say we’re gonna put wets on this time, everybody has to put them on,” Sawyer said. “It’s a non-competitive pit stop. And then we’re kind of back in the same business of figuring out — and we still have to work on this with a short period of time to do it, but get ready for (Sunday) night, and how that will look from, again, a competitive or non-competitive pit stop.
“But I think once the race starts, it’s really no different than prior to. We can get the wets on. We proved last night we can do that in a manner that looks pretty straightforward and execute that.”