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Through the Field: Speed Bump

by Elliot Hicks

Let’s be honest.

This past week’s Cup Series race at Martinsville was a severe letdown compared to the expectations for the Next Gen car’s first race at the track known as the “Paper Clip.”

The on-track action (or lack thereof) nearly put me to sleep a couple of times. It felt like no one could pass. And the same two drivers, race winner William Byron, and Chase Elliott, led nearly every lap. Honestly, had Elliott not lost the lead on a pit stop, he likely would have continued to lead the entire way through.

William Byron captured his fourth-career Cup Series win at Martinsville Speedway on April 9.

The race was an absolute stinker, especially compared to the great racing we’ve seen most of this season with the new car. But the reactions from the fan base and even people in the sport have been massive overreactions.

Drivers have said that races should be shortened. People are also expressing doubt about the Next Gen’s performance on short tracks. Neither of these things should be happening.

This particular race had a lot of elements that aren’t especially likely to repeat themselves.

First off, it was the first race with this car at a track like this. The teams really had no notes and not the best idea on how to set the car up for the track. Alex Bowman said in an Instagram post that the things that made his No. 48 team successful in the past at Martinsville were out the window and not a factor this time around.

The weather was also much colder than most Cup races, regardless of location. That affected tire wear and other elements that made racing more difficult (or perhaps made things easier on the drivers, but it still meant that the opportunities for passing based on tire wear and other related elements just weren’t present.)

Let’s not forget this race was already 100 laps shorter than it had been in the past. There’s no need to continually shorten races, and it was a disappointment to hear former champion and elder statesman of the series Kevin Harvick arguing for shorter races. It was equally as disappointing to hear Hailie Deegan, someone who could be one of the next NASCAR stars (if she can ever find her footing to be consistently successful in the Truck Series), argue for the same thing.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel just because the occasional flat tire happens. If there’s a more consistent issue, maybe it’s worth discussing, but let’s not get too hasty with things right now.

Sometimes things will not go as planned as you head in new directions, but that doesn’t mean you change direction or give up just because of a speed bump. Keep rolling, and if you need to reassess, that’s fine, but no need for rash decisions. Put simply:  Practice makes perfect.

Nothing can be perfect in the Cup Series either, but I have to shout out two teams who have had great starts to their seasons compared to their expectations heading in: Trackhouse Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. Trackhouse’s Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez have often run up front, and Chastain earned his first Cup win at Circuit of the Americas (COTA). Suarez won’t be far behind.

Stewart-Haas Racing should be expected to have good performances. Still, after a disaster of a season last year across the board, seeing their cars run well consistently has to be satisfying. Chase Briscoe has a win, Cole Custer ran in the top five at Martinsville before a pit penalty and Aric Almirola has shown continued consistency.

Outside of those drivers, here are a few fantasy NASCAR buy-and-sell picks from where we stand at the moment:

Drivers to Buy

William Byron:  While I’m sure Byron has consistently high value with Hendrick Motorsports being the current cream of the crop, I believe this is the year Byron’s No. 24 shows the potential that we’ve been waiting to see. It’s already been the most successful season he’s had in terms of running up front; he’s won two races for the first time and has led more laps thus far than in any full season he’s run.

Kurt Busch23XI Racing isn’t really in the best spot at the moment, and I don’t see them winning a non-superspeedway race this year. But I honestly think Kurt Busch could drive the car from the Flinstones to a top-10 finish. The veteran makes the best out of every situation and grinds out good finishes like no one else – except, perhaps, his brother – can.

Drivers to Sell

Denny Hamlin:  Denny Hamlin is currently the most boom-or-bust driver in the series. He won at Richmond – showing the championship-adjacent-caliber talent we all know he has. But then, he was never even a factor at Martinsville, finishing three laps down in the springtime race there for the second year in a row. He wondered how a top-level team could miss it by that much; I’m wondering the same.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.:  Not that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had all that much value anyway, but I don’t think he’s worth picking up long-term. He’s considered a favorite at both Bristol Dirt and Talladega, but I don’t think he’ll have the longevity or consistency to hang around for a good finish in either of those races. Any optimism early in the year is gone, as he hasn’t even finished in the top 20 since the race at Auto Club Speedway in February and has been no better than 27th in the last five races.

Thanks for reading. For more fantasy NASCAR picks and life advice, follow me on Twitter, @EHicks39, or check out more of my work at Elliot-Hicks.com.

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