The ValleyStar Credit Union 300 is the biggest race of the Late Model Stock Car season. For the teams and drivers that make the annual pilgrimage to Martinsville Speedway every October, it is the Super Bowl. It is a chance to shine on the grand stage of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series facility, and a shot at a one-of-a-kind trophy and the largest payday in the sport.
There is incredible pressure on the teams that invest time, energy, and resources, blood, sweat, and tears into their machines all season long when they come to Martinsville. A poor run in this race after a great season is disappointment. A strong run despite a poor season is redemption. And a victory equals immortality.
Considering the stakes for the race at the .526-mile oval in Ridgeway, Virginia, it deserves nothing but the absolute greatest effort from NASCAR and its personnel to make sure the event is run as smoothly, fairly, and responsibly as possible. Unfortunately, that obligation was not fulfilled in several ways last weekend.
First, there was the controversial manner in which the 81-car field was set during Saturday’s qualifying. Timing and scoring issues developed during that day’s practice session, and officials deemed they could not be fixed without halting the session. They elected to let the session continue, and then held a drivers’ meeting to discuss the ramifications of qualifying due to the lack of electronic scoring.
After explaining the situation to drivers, a vote was cast – would you prefer single-car runs or group qualifying, with the understanding that qualifying would likely be hand-timed by a group of officials using stopwatches? Drivers elected to stand by the group qualifying that had been planned for the session.
While some will praise that the decision was left to the drivers, this was a call that should have been made by NASCAR and race director Lynn Carroll. With so much on the line for this race, every effort should have been made to guarantee a fair and accurate qualifying session, and hand-timing European-style qualifying proved to be neither.
Several hours passed after the conclusion of qualifying before NASCAR announced the results of the session, due to the time required to average together qualifying results from 80 cars than ran five laps apiece. Even when they were announced, there were few that were happy with them. Nearly to a man, the garage consensus was that Todd Gilliland was fasted in qualifying, recording times that would have likely broken the track record of 20.165 seconds set by Philip Morris in 2011. Instead, he was placed 14th with a time of 20.27 seconds, nearly two-tenths behind pole sitter Timothy Peters at 20.08.
The timing and scoring issues were resolved overnight Saturday, but that didn’t prevent other glaring issues from cropping up throughout the day. First, fans and teams spent large portions of the day (including the first heat race and most of the final 50 laps of the feature) with no scoreboard or lap counter available on the infield video tower.
For the biggest race of the season, having no clearly visible scoreboard is unacceptable, both for the teams that have devoted their entire season in preparation for this race and for the fans who paid $30 each to attend the event. And at times during the heat races when the scoreboard was operating, the running order on screen differed wildly from the actual on-track product, sometimes including drivers that weren’t even in the given heat race.
If you were unable to make the trip to Martinsville, NASCAR produced an internet-based live stream broadcast of the event on FansChoice.TV. The stream, however, suffered from a “follow-the-leader” mentality, especially during the heat races where the drama is the battle for 10th place, the final transfer spot into the 200-lap feature. The timing and scoring monitor provided on the broadcast also was rife with errors. Several names were missing entirely from the running order on the live stream, including Gilliland (who spent a lot of time leading the race) and 2015 NASCAR Whelen All American Series National Champion Lee Pulliam. Car numbers were shown in these instances, but no driver was labeled for the cars in question.
On top of that, there were several questionable decisions by race control during the event. Firstly, when Martinsville has a notorious history of cutting its conclusion close to the sunset at a track which doesn’t have a lighting system for night races, a second “competition caution” at lap 100 was announced between the last chance qualifier and the feature race to allow for refueling. During every pre-race press release and in the drivers’ meeting, it was stated clearly there would just be one enforced caution, at lap 150, but the rules changed just before the biggest race of the season.
That caution proved to be disastrous. Not only did it interrupt a side-by-side battle for the lead between Gilliland and Jake Crum, it took one driver out of the race and nearly cost another. Kaz Grala, running tenth at the time, was penalized for, according to the audio from the officials’ radio frequency, “Unapproved looking, or whatever you want to call it.” Then eighth-place Matt Bowling was told he would be sent to the rear for getting his water bottle refilled, because his team did not ask permission prior to doing so. Bowling’s penalty was eventually overturned, but Grala was still sent to the rear for the apparently unacceptable longing glance one of his crew members gave the #3 machine.
Simply, the biggest race of the season deserves the absolute best effort from NASCAR to make sure it is a fair and rewarding experience for teams and fans. The sanctioning body did not deliver on that front last weekend at Martinsville. While the on-track product overcame those failures, all the way down to a thrilling finish which saw Tommy Lemons, Jr. add his name to the list of multiple-time winners of the race, it did so despite the efforts of NASCAR, rather than as a result of NASCAR’s efforts.
Considering the amount of time and money spent by teams to prepare for the event, and the facility available to it, there is no reason why it can’t be operated at the same level as a NASCAR National Series event. That was not remotely the case this weekend, and any fan, crew member, or driver who feels cheated as a result is absolutely correct.