MARTINSVILLE, – When the green flag falls at 7 on Saturday night for the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway, the Late Model Stock Car race writes a new chapter and teams are preparing for how the new qualifying and race procedures change the complexion of the race.
Last year, CE Falk won the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 and after the event Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell made plans for a major overhaul of the race weekend.
Campbell announced those changes in June consisting of an elevated winner’s purse, more money for the top-five finishers, plus a return to single-car qualifying and stage racing for the main event.
Nearly every comment from drivers, teams and fans has been positive and the changes have drivers and fans alike excited about this year’s event.
The return to single car qualifying has been one of the changes that drivers have lobbied for the past several years and now that it’s finally back, drivers said they are excited about it.
“I’m thrilled about it,” said two-time ValleyStar Credit Union 300 winner Lee Pulliam. “It puts the prestige back into it for the drivers. And if I’m a fan, I’d pay to go to qualifying. That guy on the track’s got pressure on him, he’s the only car on the racetrack with the pressure at night for those three laps.
"One mistake and he’s not in the field,'' Pulliam said.
"It’s more fun for the drivers, too. They feel like (if) they make the top 20, they've accomplished something and can sleep well at night. You end up with 20 good cars at the top of the field,'' Pulliam said.
"When you take just two, you get heat race wrecks and you have really good cars who won’t make it to the feature of the race. I think we’ll see better cars up front, which will make the whole race better,'' Pulliam said.
Falk said he’s happy to have single-car qualifying and locking in the top 20 back but says it puts more pressure on guys like him who aren’t always the best qualifiers.
“I like being locked into the top 20,” Falk said. “That part’s cool, regardless if you win the race or not, those 20 guys that’s a big deal for them to be the 20 fastest in the field. Being a part of that group is always really cool.
"There’s a lot that happens in those heat races, I enjoyed them. I wasn’t the greatest of qualifiers, so I think every race but one I had to (compete in a) heat race (to get) in,'' Falk said.
“I always made up some spots in those heat races, and it was always really cool to get wins in those heat races. As for single-car qualifying, that’s even more pressure packed than trying to win the race. It’s a lot of pressure on the teams to have the set up right, with the tires and air pressure and to get everything going for you. I’m really looking forward to it,'' Falk said.
In addition to the single-car qualifying, lap-leader money from Doughton Racing Products, stage winner bonuses from Clarence’s Steakhouse and additional money for the top-five finishers, this year’s winner will take home $32,000 – the most ever to win in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.
The race format will be similar to a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race as it will be run in three stages with breaks at lap 75 and lap 150 with a 50-lap dash to the finish.
Previous races have had 10-25 lap final segments, but this year’s race will come down to strategy with four new tires being allowed during the race. The drivers and crew chiefs get to decide when to change tires too.
Another change in the format that will affect the teams is there no inversion of the field during the race and Peyton Sellers said that this year’s race will be more about racing and less about saving tires for the end of the race with the way the new format will play out.
“It’s not as much about saving tires this year, Sellers said. “It’s going to be about leading laps and being up front. You’re not banking on the invert or sagging back and waiting. As racers we just want to go race and that’s what’s going to happen this year.”
Falk said that he’s looking forward to the racers not playing games for the invert and just racing for the win.
“I’m looking forward to not having the invert and just going out and running the race,” Falk said. “With some guys it was getting ridiculous, guys were racing each other trying to lose positions prior to the halfway break just to get the invert.
"I’ve always tried to race to be in the best position possible. I think we’ll have a better race and knowing that those breaks are coming and that we’ll have a restart coming you’ll see guys trying to be in better position for the restarts too.”
Pulliam said it’s going to be different racing this year without the inverts.
“I try to be a smart racer and play the game however it’s written,” said Pulliam. “It’ll be a better show for the fans because there’s no need to be running seventh or eighth or whatever at the invert. I think it’ll be more straight up racing, and for all of the drivers that’s good. We don’t want to be 'fake racing.'
"These inverts are for the birds, it’s not too bad if you’re racing on a Saturday night for the fans, but if you take a 200-lap race and put a guy who’s running in 10th-place on the pole I don’t think either the fans or the drivers thinks it makes for a good show. I think in the end it’s going to make a quality show for everyone.”
The changes to qualifying and the race format certainly have the drivers and teams scrambling to make sure they understand how it all works and how to put themselves in the best position possible.
It’s also created a buzz within the fans as they anticipate watching how it all plays out on Saturday. With car counts on the rise from previous years and all the changes, this year's ValleyStar Credit Union 300 races could be one of the best.
Editor's Note: Tim Southers is the Director of Communications at Martinsville Sppedway.