New Rules, Same Challenges at Martinsville

Brad Keselowski

As teams head out of the Easter break and back into the 2016 schedule, Team Penske crew chief Paul Wolfe says the new low-downforce rules package won't play a big role at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)

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As Sprint Cup teams head out of the Easter break and back into the 2016 schedule, Team Penske crew chief Paul Wolfe says NASCAR's new low-downforce rules package won't play as a big a role at Martinsville Speedway as it has in recent weeks.

As a guest on MRN.com's "Motorsports Monday," Wolfe told co-hosts Woody Cain and Joey Meier that Sunday's STP 500 will present a familiar pair of challenges on the Virginia half-mile.

"We’re not going to really see the effects of the downforce changes at Martinsville," said Wolfe, who will guide driver Brad Keselowski into the sixth race of the season. "It seems you're always working on the same things there regardless of any changes to aerodynamics: (1) managing your brakes and (2) because drive-off in the corners is huge, you must keep the rear tires underneath you."

Keselowski, ninth in the early-season point standings, is licking his chops over the return to Martinsville - where he led 143 laps last fall and finished second (to Denny Hamlin) in the spring race. Keselowski won earlier this month at Las Vegas and Wolfe says that victory helped the entire team exhale as it rolls through the second month of the season.

"That win was huge," Wolfe said. "It locks you into the Chase, and allows you the opportunity to try some different things and move forward through the summer months."

Despite tasting early-season success for the second year in a row (Keselowski won at Auto Club Speedway in March 2015), Wolfe knows the learning curve never really flattens out.

"We try to take something from each track that’ll help us through the entire season," he said. "It was good to be fast at Vegas, which is one of those mile-and-a-half ovals, but we need to be better at the tracks that have high tire fall-off."

And from there, the conversation inevitably led back to NASCAR's new low-downforce rules package that was implemented for the 2016 season.

"Tire combinations and track surfaces change our approach to a lot of these races, especially with Goodyear going to a softer tire this year to get some of the grip back that we lost with less downforce," Wolfe said. "That softer tire tends to wear out faster. Understanding the setups for that type of tire is going to be very important."

And like so many of his colleagues, Wolfe knows it's still a work in progress.

"It’s a little early to tell," he said. "The cars have not been disturbed that much (in traffic). You’re able to get closer to the other guys and make that pass. You’re always going to have what drivers call 'aero push' or 'dirty air.' But the more we reduce downforce, that won’t be as pronounced."

He cited the Las Vegas race from March 6 of this year as an illustration of the progress being made.

"When Kyle Busch got the lead late and we were battling with Joey Logano, as that run went on we were still able to race each other," Wolfe notes, "but at the same time, we were catching the leader. We haven’t seen that a lot in the past. Race leaders don’t seem to have quite the advantage they did before, with higher downforce. Hopefully, that trend continues as the season goes on."

In winning that race, Keselowski charged past Busch late and kept the No. 2 Team Penske Ford in front over the final six laps to notch his first victory of the young season. Keselowski overcame a speeding penalty on pit road to claim his 18th career Cup Series win and first since that Auto Club victory in March of last year.

While Wolfe doesn't see less downforce being more influential in determining a winner at Martinsville this coming weekend, he knows the new rules will return to prominence next week when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway ... which is a good thing, in his mind.

"NASCAR and the teams must continue to work together as we travel down this path," Wolfe said. "We like what we’ve seen so far."

Motor Racing Network - "The Voice of NASCAR" - will have live coverage of Sunday's STP 500 from Martinsville Speedway, beginning at 12 p.m. (ET)- with live streaming at MRN.com and on the MRN App.

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