Martinsville: Rough and Tumble ride for all
There are no givens at Martinsville Speedway. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, winners of 11 of the last 20 races at the 0.526-mile paper clip-shaped track, can speak eloquently to that as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series steamrolls into Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500.
Each had the look of the winner a year ago, restarting one-two with the white flag literally in the starter’s hand. Enter Clint Bowyer’s banzai charge that went awry, igniting a multi-car accident that produced bruised feelings lasting all the way into autumn.
Ryan Newman, who’d been a lap down minutes earlier, unapologetically wound up in Victory Lane.
“It was a win; that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
Sunday’s 129th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the southern Virginia track likely will feature more of the same. There have been double-digit caution flags in 25 of the last 26 Martinsville races.
Yet Johnson and Gordon remain the drivers to beat regardless of circumstance.
Johnson is the track’s most recent winner, capturing last fall’s race that boosted him to the top spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.™ The victory was Johnson’s seventh at Martinsville, a total he shares with Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
The Johnson-Gordon juggernaut amounts to a “Big Two” at the only current track that occupied a spot on the series’ inaugural 1949 season. Johnson won three consecutive races in 2006-07 and carries a series-best Driver Rating of 122.3. Gordon enjoyed season sweeps in 2003 and 2005.
Amazingly, four-time champion Gordon has run 40 Martinsville races without a DNF. In addition to his seven wins, Gordon has amassed 25 top fives, 32 top 10s and seven poles.
Owner Rick Hendrick looks for a record 20th Martinsville win that would break a deadlock at the top with Petty Enterprises.
Johnson and Gordon aren’t the only current competitors to have solved Martinsville’s puzzle. Unfortunately, a third member of a “Big Three” triumvirate – Denny Hamlin – won’t be around to challenge his rivals.
Injured in a final-lap incident March 24 at Auto Club Speedway, Hamlin grudgingly gives up his seat in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to Mark Martin (see story page 2).
The 32-year-old Virginian actually had gotten the better of Johnson and Gordon since his first of four Martinsville victories in the spring of 2008. Hamlin fashioned three consecutive wins in 2009-10. His 12 top-10 finishes also include a pair of seconds and a third.
Newman, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are the only current competitors able to break the Johnson-Gordon-Hamlin Martinsville stranglehold over a 20-race span that began in 2003.
Points Leader Earnhardt Eyes Victory
Winning as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader has yet to happen in 2013. That may change on Sunday, despite Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s failure to post a victory in 26 previous visits to Martinsville Speedway.
No. 1-ranked Earnhardt has statistics – and momentum – on his side.
Martinsville is Junior’s best track in terms of Driver Rating (99.8) and laps led (868). His resume shows the track as being tied for best in top fives (10) and second best in top 10s (14), one shy of Daytona International Speedway’s 15.
Earnhardt finished third in last spring’s Martinsville race. Since becoming the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2008, Junior has posted seven top 10s, including a pair of seconds.
Earnhardt has four short-track victories among his 19 NASCAR Sprint Cup wins – three at Richmond and one at Bristol.
Momentum is Earnhardt’s hole card – and possibly the most important asset as he seeks his first NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Junior has come out of the gate in unprecedented fashion – five top 10s including second-place finishes at Daytona and at California’s Auto Club Speedway. His average finish of 4.4 leads all competitors.
Earnhardt leads the series in Green Flag Passes (588) and most Quality Passes (354).
Jimmie Johnson was the last competitor to post a victory as the points leader, winning November’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
No Mulligans At Martinsville For Rookies
The tallest of orders awaits at the shortest of tracks.
First-time visits to the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway rarely prove successful for even the biggest of talents. Rattle off the names, and then check out their debuts. Jimmie Johnson – now a seven-time winner at Martinsville – opened his Martinsville career with a 35th-place finish in 2002. Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart finished 20th in 1999. Kevin Harvick, finally a Martinsville winner in 2011, slogged to a 34th-place finish in his debut at the Virginia short track.
Among those who blossomed into NSCS stars, the latest and greatest example of immediate Martinsville success is Denny Hamlin, who finished eighth in his 2005 debut. It was a foreshadowing of Martinsville brilliance, as the Virginia native has four wins there. He’ll miss this weekend’s race while recovering from a back injury.
All that begs the question: How will Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick fare this Sunday. Because the NASCAR Nationwide Series has only raced at Martinsville once – 2006 – since 1994, neither Stenhouse nor Patrick has much competitive seat time there.
The two are tied atop the Sunoco rookie standings, each with 54 points. Stenhouse is currently 12th in the NSCS standings, in contention to become only the second rookie to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup (Hamlin is the only one thus far). If Patrick makes the field on Sunday, she’ll become the first female to start a race at Martinsville. Likewise, neither have much short-track experience to lean on in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Patrick has two Bristol starts with a best finish of 28th this season; Stenhouse’s lone short-track start resulted in a 16th at Bristol three weeks ago. Stenhouse did, however, tally three short-track wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, all at Iowa Speedway.
Experience Counts For ‘Replacement’ Martin
Few competitors in Sunday’s STP Gas Treatment 500 have more Martinsville Speedway experience than Mark Martin.
Martin, who’ll take the controls of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in relief of injured Denny Hamlin, participated in his first race at the 0.526-mile short track in September 1981. A quick study, the then-22-year-old finished third behind NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip and Harry Gant.
Sunday’s race will be Martin’s 49th at Martinsville, where he won in 1992 and 2000, both times behind the wheel of a Jack Roush-owned Ford. Martin sat out each of Martinsville’s 2012 races – as he was supposed to do this month, until Hamlin’s final-lap accident at Auto Club necessitated a replacement.
The now 54-year-old Arkansas native, however, has shown no signs of a slow-down in recent seasons. His most recent top 10 – among a total of 25 – came in the spring of 2011 when Martin ran his last points contending season for Hendrick Motorsports. Martin finished second in the track’s fall race in 2010. Another top-five finish would be No. 400 in Martin’s NASCAR national series career. He’s currently second on that all-time list.
Victory is always part of Martin’s game plan. He would have it no other way. Still, JGR would be ecstatic with any kind of top finish as it embarks on a cobbled-together driver lineup to keep the No. 11 Toyota among the top 10 in points pending Hamlin’s return to competition in May.
Hamlin might be a long shot to qualify for the Chase but JGR remains a top contender for a NASCAR Sprint Cup car owner’s championship.
Three Reign: Busch Goes For Third Consecutive Top Five
For a driver of 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kurt Busch’s caliber, this stat might seem hard to believe: The last time Busch scored three consecutive top-five finishes was the first three races of the 2005 season.
Eight years later, Busch looks to match that feat this Sunday at Martinsville, a track where he has experienced varied results. Coincidentally, the last time he finished in the top 10 at Martinsville was that 2005 season, when he finished sixth in the October event.
Busch, running his first full season with Furniture Row Racing, currently sits 13th in points after finishes of fourth at Bristol and fifth at Auto Club. It was the first time Furniture Row scored back-to-back top fives.
Though Busch only has two top fives in 25 Martinsville starts, one was a victory (October of 2002). That was 11 years and four teams ago as a member of Roush Fenway Racing. That was also the last Martinsville win for Roush. Since then, the team has six top fives and 25 top 10s in 93 starts.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
With the NASCAR Nationwide Series off this weekend, Regan Smith returns to the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. Smith finished seventh in the Daytona 500 in the 51, his lone start this season. … Brian Vickers will return to the NSCS, driving the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Vickers, who finished eighth in the No. 55 at Bristol, will then move to the No. 11 at Texas, filling in for Denny Hamlin. … Milestone Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his 600th NASCAR national series start this weekend, which is 40th on the all-time national series starts list. … TV producer Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey from HISTORY Channel’s “The Bible” with serve as Grand Marshals on Sunday.
Extra Laps Could Put Vickers Back In Contention
Before the 2013 season started, many NASCAR experts and analysts thought Brian Vickers would have the inside track to winning his second NASCAR Nationwide Series championship.
As the series heads into its second consecutive week off before heading to Texas Motor Speedway for the April 12 O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, the 2003 series champion has some catching up to do if he wants to prove those prognosticators right.
Vickers currently sits 11th in the standings, 63 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr. and five points back of 10th-place driver Alex Bowman.
Vickers will get extra seat time when he fills in for the injured Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for at least four NASCAR Sprint Cup races, starting at Texas. The extra time behind the wheel could prove invaluable in his efforts to battle back into championship contention.
In Vickers’ championship season, he sat 12th in the standings after the first five races. After nine races that season, he was only ranked 11th. Therefore, mounting a comeback putting him back in contention is definitely not out of the question, but he’ll need stronger, more consistent showings if he is to be successful.
Outside of a pair of third-place finishes at Las Vegas and Bristol, Vickers’ best effort is a 17th at Phoenix. In the most recent race, at Auto Club, his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota experienced engine trouble that forced him to hang up his driving gloves after only 53 laps, leaving him with a 34th-place finish. In the season opener at Daytona he finished 19th, two laps down.
This is Vickers’ first full-time season in the NNS since 2003, when he posted three wins and 21 top-10 finishes.
Busch’s Teammate Kligerman Also Having Strong Season
Parker Kligerman, of Westport, Conn., might not have the resume or notoriety of his talented and sometimes controversial owner Kyle Busch, but that hasn’t stopped him from quietly building his own name this season.
Five races into the season, Kligerman has two top fives and three top 10s with a best finish of fourth at Auto Club, two weekends ago. He also has a fifth-place finish in the season opener at Daytona.
He’s currently tied for eighth in the standings with the past two years’ championship runner-up Elliott Sadler, 56 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr.
Prior to this season, Kligerman appeared in 18 NNS races, with 12 starts during the 2010 season. In his only series visit to Texas Motor Speedway, he finished 34th after being sidelined by an accident on lap 180 in the 2010 race.
In five races at the 1.5-mile Texas oval in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, he has two runner-up finishes and two other top-10 finishes.
Away from the spotlight of NASCAR’s national series, Kligerman recently provided scholarships to young, aspiring racers to assist them in fulfilling their dreams of becoming race car drivers. The event took place at the Norwalk (Conn.) Karting Association, where Kligerman honed his driving skills.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Both Turner Scott Motorsports and JR Motorsports tested at Texas Motor Speedway on April 1. Participants were Justin Allgaier, Kyle Larson and Nelson Piquet Jr. from TSM and Regan Smith, Brad Sweet and Kasey Kahne from JRM. … Full-time Turner Scott Motorsports NNS driver Piquet will be returning to the truck series this weekend at Martinsville piloting a fourth entry for the team. … Richard Childress Racing driver Brian Scott, who drives the No. 2 Chevrolet, got engaged to his longtime girlfriend Whitney Kay over the Easter holiday.
Past Kroger 250 Winners, First-Timers In Equal Numbers
The field for Martinsville Speedway’s Kroger 250 might be said to be a study in extremes.
Six entered drivers have gone to Victory Lane at the 0.526-mile oval. Six others are attempting to make their first NASCAR national series appearance.
Forty-two different competitors have made their first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start at Martinsville.
Among the group is NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who debuted in the Kroger 250 on April 17, 2004. Timothy Peters is the only competitor to claim both first series start (2005) and victory (2009) at Martinsville.
Peters, Johnny Sauter, Ron Hornaday Jr., Kevin Harvick, David Starr and Scott Riggs are Martinsville winners expected to compete in Saturday’s race.
Kyle Busch Motorsports brings a pair of first-timers to the event: NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate Darrell Wallace Jr. and Erik Jones. Wallace finished third in a 2010 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at the track. He’s 19; Jones is 16.
“I’ve got the same truck that Denny [Hamlin] won with here last year so there’s no reason we shouldn’t be up front,” said Wallace during a recent test day. “It’s going to be key for all of us to learn as much as we can from Kyle [Busch]. If we can pick his brain to get as much as we can, we should be pretty good right off the bat.”
Other debuting are Chase Elliott, 17, son of 1988 NSCS champion Bill Elliott and a NASCAR Next9 driver; Grant Galloway, 18, an Indiana midget racer; Devin Jones, 16, a transplanted Californian racing out of Hickory, N.C., and Jonathan Davenport, a 29-year-old late model dirt touring competitor.
Sauter Hopes To Continue Momentum Of Daytona Victory
While all of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers are anxious to get back on track this weekend at Martinsville Speedway for the Kroger 250, probably no one is more ready than Johnny Sauter.
Sauter, driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Toyota, opened the 2013 season with a win at Daytona International Speedway and like most drivers the veteran wants to keep his momentum going after one of the biggest wins of his career. He won the Kroger 250 in 2011.
As for winning on one of the biggest tracks on the schedule and returning to one of the smallest, Sauter said you have to adjust according to the track and your surroundings.
“Like any race, a lot of things have to go right, pit strategy and taking care of the truck all day and staying out of trouble so Martinsville is a tough one to win at,” Sauter said. “Like I said, we’ve done it before and we typically run in the top five every time we’re there until something happens. I don’t see any reason why we can’t go there and pick up where we left off in prior races.”
Harvick Chasing Record Fourth Martinsville Truck Victory
There are many drivers competing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Kroger 250 this Saturday that look forward to racing at Martinsville Speedway. One of those drivers is Kevin Harvick.
Harvick, who competes full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, will make his first of two scheduled starts this season in the NCWTS at Martinsville and based on his previous success at the tight 0.526-mile track, he is already one of the favorites to collect the grandfather clock given to each race winner.
Harvick is the defending winner of the Kroger 250 having won the event three of the past four seasons. A victory in Saturday’s race would give Harvick the most wins – four – of any NASCAR Camping World Truck drivers at the track – tying him with Dennis Setzer.
The Bakersfield, Calif., native will make his first start in the No. 24 NTS Motorsports Chevrolet as teammate to four-time series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. and Daytona race pole winner Brennan Newberry.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Nelson Piquet Jr., last season’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Most Popular Driver, will drive the No. 30 Turner Scott Motorsports at Martinsville. Piquet, now a full-time competitor in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, finished second in the track’s 2012 fall race. … The Kroger 250 marks the 29th time the series has raced at Martinsville Speedway. Martinsville is one of three current tracks – with Bristol and Phoenix – that appeared on the 1995 inaugural NCWTS schedule. … Virginian Caleb Holman, who competed in eight NCWTS events a year ago, makes his first start of the season this week. Holman finished 24th in Martinsville’s fall race.
Kwasniewski Leads Field Into Makeup
Two weeks after rain washed out the second race of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season, the series is back at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway Saturday night for the Kevin Whitaker Chevrolet 150 presented by G-Oil. Points leader Dylan Kwasniewski leads the field for the 10th race in series history at the venerable half-mile.
The nine previous races produced eight different winners, including Austin Dillon and Joey Logano. Darrell Wallace Jr. is the only driver to win there twice. Brett Moffitt, who was runner-up to Kwasniewski in the season opener at Bristol, is a former winner at Greenville.
Rev Racing’s Daniel Suarez will be pulling double-duty thanks to the makeup date. Suarez will compete at Greenville Saturday and then head to Mexico City for Sunday’s NASCAR Toyota Series event, the Mexico 240, on the 1-mile oval at Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.
Ander Vilarino kicked off defense of his Euro-Racecar Series championship with a dominating weekend in the Nogaro 200 at Circuit Paul Armagnac this past weekend. Vilarino swept the twin races Sunday and Monday. Vilarino accomplished the latter by overcoming a pit-road penalty and then making a three-wide pass for the win on the final lap of the 2.260-mile road course.
April also kicks off a big month for the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, as 31 short tracks across the U.S. and Canada host season openers. This includes the re-opening of Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway this Saturday after the state-of-the-art half-mile underwent a one-year hiatus from racing.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- Next Race: STP Gas Booster 500
- The Place: Martinsville Speedway
- The Date: Sunday, April 7
- The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
- TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 263 miles (500 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- Next Race: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300
- The Place: Texas Motor Speedway
- The Date: Friday, April 12
- The Time: 8:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN2, 8 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- Next Race: Kroger 250
- The Place: Martinsville Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, April 6
- The Time: 1:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 1 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 131.5 miles (250 laps)