Sunday, March 29, 2009

Live on Type Delay: The Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500

Martinsville is not only the shortest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Circuit, it is the oldest. Though NASCAR's premier series has been racing there since 1956, the track was built in 1947, and home to many a stock car race. And it has been home to only stock car and NASCAR racing. This is the little paper clip, as opposed to the big paper clip at New Hampshire, so called because of it's shape, with long straightaways and tight turns. The speeds vary from close to 120 mph at the end of the straightaway to a little under 40 mph in the center of the turn. This tells us a little about how the cars have to be set up for this track. Overall, we can see that Martinsville is proof that the cars don't have to be fast to give us good racing.

Jeff Gordon takes the point at the beginning, due to a rain-out for qualifying, and is just about to lap the field when Michael Waltrip spins and brings out the caution on lap 22 or so. Before that, although Gordon checked out on the field, there was plenty of racing for position among the cars second place and back. Enough to make us wonder if the drivers may be trying too hard, too soon.

Scott Speed and Robby Gordon are the only cars that stay out, while everyone else gets tires. Speed leads the restart, and Robby Gordon falls back. After a few laps Jeff Gordon, retakes the lead from Speed, and the scheduled competition caution flies at lap 40. Nothing much changes here, and Jeff Gordon continues to lead. The rest of the top five continues to change often, but it is mostly the drivers we expect to do well at Martinsville--Stewart, Johnson, and Hamlin--who are providing the most action.

Friends and readers, we have entered an alternate reality. According to whoever writes the Aflac trivia questions--and at the expense of Mike Joy, who had to read the information-- Brian Vickers' only win came at Martinsville in 2006. Those of us who believe that his first win came at Talladega in 2006 now have to adapt to the environs of a different universe.

Robby Gordon spins and brings out the caution on lap 76. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth incur penalties during the pit stops and have to restart at the back of the field. Only Matt doesn't fall back to the tail end by the time the green flag flies, and has to take a drive through penalty, which puts him a lap down. When Kyle Busch spins out and collects Scott Speed, on lap 122, "Kensiss," as Darrell Waltrip likes to call him, is no longer the first car a lap down, as Jeff Gordon has lapped David Stremme just before the caution flies.

When the lap count reaches the mid 130's, we get to see the first real racing for the lead. Denny Hamlin has caught Gordon and is letting him know he is there. In a superb show of driving skill, Hamlin drives into the turns harder, nearly hitting the rear of Gordon's car at every corner, while Gordon remains steadfast. He has rediscovered his ability to control what goes on on the track, and does not let Hamlin's harrassment unsettle him. It takes several laps before Hamlin finally takes the lead.

During this long run, several cars have had to pit for right-front tire problems. This isn't Goodyear's fault, but is due to the fact that the brakes get so hot at Martinsville, they melt the bead on the tires, and the air blows out through the broken bead.

During this long run, Stewart moves as far up as second place. Smoke has fun making contact with other cars, but Jeff doesn't, unless he is the one initiating the contact. In a great nostalgic moment, Gordon whines, "If he hits me one more time, I'll knock his head off."

Yes, the old Jeff Gordon is back, and it is good. It is good for the fans, and it is good for the bloggers, but it is especially good for the bloggers who are fans. We can make fun of Jeff, while at the same time admiring his very impressive ability as a driver.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr has moved into the top five during this long run. The much maligned Tony Eury, Jr, Earnardt's Crew Chief, has done an excellent job of changing the 88 car to match the conditions. The Juniors are definitely in this race.

We have had so much fun watching this race, we have forgotten to write about it, so we move ahead to lap 320-something. At Martinsville, lapped traffic plays a big role when the leaders catch it. Passing is not easy as it is, and the drivers of the lapped cars are not only fighting for position, they do not want to give up another lap all that easily. When there are two cars like Hamlin's and Jeff Gordon's battling for the lead, the lapped traffic provides a huge challenge. Jeff picks the traffic, bumps Hamlin and takes the lead. Hamlin returns the favor, and retakes the lead. While this racing has gone on, Johnson has made it up to third. The most recent Dominator of Martinsville challenges his team mate, Gordon, and takes second. Now a caution for debris flies.

The debris turns out to be a beer can. At track like Martinsville, where fans cherish the right to be able to bring in their own coolers and beer, it is not good to throw a beer can, especially while the race is in progress, and Kyle Busch is nowhere near the lead.

Even though Johnson has won six of the last eight races at Martinsville, this is really the House of Hamlin. Aside from the Dale Jr fans, the majority of the fans in the stands are more than likely there for Denny Hamlin. Martinsville is as much Hamlin's home turf as Las Vegas is home to the Busch brothers. So, whether the can was thrown by a disgruntled Gordon fan, or just someone who hates Toyotas, it was probably easy for security to feret out the can thrower and escort that person off the premises (Pssst, it's the guy wearing the #24 cap and the "Toyota" t-shirt).

The next caution is brought out by a car that has hit the wall and is unable to get in position to enter the pits by the time it gets to turn four. This takes the fuel mileage factor out of the equation, as everybody stops for tires and fuel. They are good to go for fuel until the end.

Jimmie Johnson takes the lead out of the pits, and Hamlin will restart in second. With less than fifty laps to go, the cream has risen to the top, as they say, and the top three are Johnson, Hamlin, and Stewart. Hamlin sticks right to Johnson's tail at the restart, and takes the lead in turns one and two, driving hard into the corner.

A few more cautions later, which happened so quickly we were unable to keep up with them, and we get another great restart with just a little over twenty laps to go. This time it's Hamlin, Johnson, and Stewart in the top three. Hamlin makes a clean restart, and gets away from Johnson, as Kyle Busch, laps down and aiding his team mate, stays on the inside of Johnson to prevent him from catching the leader on the inside.

But Johnson isn't finished. With fifteen laps to go, Johnson catches Hamlin and gives him the ol' chrome horn. Both cars get loose and go up the track, but third placed Stewart is just a little too far back to take advantage of the situation. Johnson strongarms his way to the lead. It was a bad day turned good for Johnson, and he easily runs the final laps to take his first checkered flag of the season, giving him wins in five of the last six races at Martinsville.

Hamlin holds on for second, Tony Stewart posts his best finish so far in third, Jeff Gordon is fourth, and Clint Bowyer is fifth. Ryan Newman makes his boss' day by finishing sixth, Mark Martin is seventh, and Dale Jr is eighth, putting all six Hendrick cars in the top eight.

Martinsville is fun for the race fan. We loved watching the cars battling for the top ten, and the great battles and passes for the lead. While the Sprint Cup car has yet to give us as exciting a race at the 1.5 mile venues, it seems to be made for the short tracks, where it has made the racing better than it was with the former car. Virginia is for lovers, they say, and we love Martinsville.

Meanwhile, as soon as I get on line and post this, I will look up the answer to the " question of the day." The question was "Which Cup driver has had their only win at Martinsville?" I'm going to guess Casey Mears, but if the answer is "Brian Vickers," I'm going to check myself in to the nearest mental health facility for treatment and therapy.

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