Saturday, October 21, 2006

Old School Racing at Martinsville

Many of the Cup chasers cut their teeth on tracks like the one at Martinsville, VA. This is a one-half mile, flat concrete paved oval, the shortest on the Cup circuit. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Denny Hamlin, for instance, spent their entire pre-NASCAR careers on short paved ovals such as Martinsville. Most of the population of North America lives within a two hour drive of a short oval.
It's old school, but for a longer distance than the Saturday night circle burners usually race. In addition, with 43 cars on the track at the same time, it's crowded, which makes a big difference in how the race is run. The driver has to be careful not to overdrive into the corners, which will certainly use up brakes. The corners are so tight, a car will have to slow from almost 120 mph to 50 mph in order to make the turn without crashing. At least aerodynamics aren't important, because, with the crowded conditions and the difficulty of passing, there will be body parts (auto body parts, that is) flying off the cars from all the beating and banging that will be going on. The late, great Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, once said, "Rubbin' is racin'," and that saying will definitely come into play at Martinsville
Qualifying is important here, for both pit position and for track position. As has been mentioned, passing is difficult, and it will take a ton of skill to move up through the pack. The pack will, by the way be illustrating the fact that NASCAR racing is a contact sport. You really want to start the race up front in order to have the best chance at finishing up front.
Jeff Gordon has seven victories at Martinsville, including last year's Fall race. This is one race in which we can see the skill that makes him one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. In two of the last three races at this track, he has one, and in the third, he finished second. He certainly has a handle on the track, and has secured a front row starting position in qualifying. He is not yet out of contention for the championship, but he will have to do a lot of winning in the last five races to get there, and it may start at Martinsville.
Junior, who is still within easy striking distance of the points lead, is very comfortable at Martinsville. In his first Cup race there, he learned what not to do, hitting, in his own words, "everything, including the pace car."
Since then, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has raced Martinsville using his extensive short track experience, and it is now, possibly, his favorite track. It is a lot of fun to watch him race there--his car handling technique shines at the races which require a high percententage of drivers' skill. All he needs to do is keep doing what he has been doing--avoid mistakes--and he could win this thing.
But the points leader, Jeff Burton, is also an accomplished short track driver. He needs to finish well to maintain his lead, for Matt Kenseth is only forty-five points behind him. However, Kenseth is not strong at Martinsville, so Burton may not have a lot to worry about, except to get through the traffic jam and avoid being involved in someone else's accident.
Kyle Busch is more of a dirt racer than a pavement racer, from his pre-Cup days, but has shown that he can run well on the short tracks. Like Gordon, he needs a lot of luck to get back into contention for the championship, but that won't prevent him from trying to get a win. Recently, the "Schrub" has shown more maturity than he has in the past, when he used to cause problems for other drivers in traffic, but our biggest concern is whether or not his recent education has stuck. He should make the race interesting, either way.
One would think that a Sprint car driver, like Kasey Kahne, would be good on the short tracks, but Kahne's strengths have been on the intermediate tracks. He definitely is a high quality talent, though, and he should be able to do more than hold his own in the traffic. There is no reason why he can't extend his strength to Martinsville, and he needs to finish all the rest of the races in the top five. He should be considered another driver to watch, come Sunday.
There is no telling how Mark Martin will do, Sunday. All of his good performance has been countered by a lot of bad luck not of his doing. He continues to smile, post race, no matter what happens. He had said that maybe the Championship "wasn't in the cards," for him, but that doesn't mean that he has given up. He continues to have fun, and who knows, he could pull it off. He did have to go to a back up car after crashing in pre-qualifying practice, so Sunday may be an uphill battle for him.
Kevin Harvick is steady, much like Jeff Burton. His performance at Martinsville has been competent, but not spectacular. Like Jimmie Johnson, he is able to adapt to any sort of track and make a good finish. It is my opinion that he may be better in traffic than Johnson. Johnson, a talented driver, tends to get confused in traffic, and his reactions are a mite slower, which could get him into trouble Sunday. If he didn't have such a penchant for running into the back of other drivers, we could have a kinder view of his chances at Martinsville.
Now, my pick among the Chasers to have the highest finishing position is Denny Hamilin, Wonder Rookie. He hasn't been that long away from short track racing, at least not as long as most of the other drivers. And he has shown an uncanny ability to adapt to any situation. If he stays focused, he could, once again, find Victory Lane.
Non-Chasers to watch:
Last week, Tony Stewart showed some great sportsmanship, deigning to avoid racing the race leaders in order to gain a lap, and thus avoiding a repeat of the accident a few weeks ago when his good friend Kasey Kahne was caught up in Stewart's wreck. Smoke definitely knows his way around Martinsville, and has led a lot of laps there, with some close finishes and some wins. He will likely let the Chasers race each other, and try to get around them only when he feels it is safe. He does have the highest drivers rating of any of the other drivers at Martinsville. It will be tricky, but if he gets a chance to try for the win, he will get it.
Scott Riggs, Clint Bowyer, and Dave Blaney all look good to go, Sunday. Riggs didn't qualify as well as we thought he would, but he is another "short track ace," and could make his way back through the traffic. Clint Bowyer is on the coattails of his RCR teammates, and he does have talent, and he is a focused driver, so he could also finish in the top ten. Blaney is a dirt track driver who has adapted well to paved short tracks, and he will certainly be worth watching.
Or listening. Martinsville can be boring to watch on TV, depending on what we see through the cameras, which is often a single file line all the way around the track for most of the race. It is highly suggsted that we listen to the radio broadcast, if available, with the TV on "mute," so as to get a good play by play on the action.
Now, for entertainment purposes, and since we are talking about old school racing, the following video is "Old School" School, and has nothing to do with racing:


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