Johnson ready for short track

Apr 5, 2005 9:56 AM

One week after one of the more subdued Bristol races in some time, the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit visits another short track, Martinsville.

This Virginia track is much flatter and slower than Bristol. This means the cars have to rely more on brakes coming in and out of the turns. Drivers entering and exiting the turns fastest will be the ones to beat. Sounds simple, but after only a few of the 500 laps, it almost becomes a mental test of will.

Drivers only get to mash the pedal for a second, then they have to let off, brake, turn, and go through the same thing repeatedly at each side of the track 1,000 times. Other than Jeff Burton running out onto the track after wrecking and pointing a finger at Jimmie Johnson, last week’s race at Bristol may have been the tamest ever. So this week, something is bound to burst.

There is no way a set of short track Cup races can be run on back to back weekends without more happening than just finger pointing. Here’s how we see the race.

Kevin Harvick (12-1): After his big win that finally happened for him at Bristol, Harvick might be in a good position to duplicate the short track feat. Someone has to carry the load as "Mr. Short Track" when Rusty retires, so why not Harvick? He has the tools, but not the past performances at Martinsville to say he’ll be a steady contender. In seven career Cup races, his best finishes were seventh in the fall of 2003 and eighth in last fall.

Harvick will likely come with the same car that won at Bristol, but he’s always been good there. Perhaps the main difference for Harvick is the intense slowing and breaking where the rotors become molten red. At Bristol, there is minimal breaking in and out of the turns. We’ll look for Harvick to improve his career best at Martinsville before taking a serious look at him for this race.

Jamie McMurray (18-1): I really like what I have seen from McMurray on the short tracks. In his last three starts at Martinsville, he has finished eighth, seventh and second. Last week McMurray was having a great run at Bristol until some bad luck ran into him. He looks to be a good play in all matchups and worth a shot to win.

Jimmie Johnson (7-1): He made a few enemies last week at Bristol when slamming Jeff Burton off the track. The interesting thing I noticed with comments from the other drivers was the unusual amount of respect for Johnson while they were discussing what took them out of the race. It’s quite unusual for a driver with as little amount of driving time in the Cup circuit as Johnson to be held in such high regard by so many veterans.

Johnson is a classy driver that rarely takes a shot at anyone. In return for his long standing respectfulness of others on the track, it’s likely he’ll get somewhat of a pass. Coming into Martinsville, another fender to fender rub-fest, Johnson has been on a tear. In his first career Cup run at Martinsville, Johnson took his lumps and finished 35th. Since then, he’s finished no worse than ninth. Last season in the fall race, Johnson won. Look for another possible win.

Jeff Gordon (7-1): The co-favorite this week with teammate Johnson. Last season, Gordon settled for sixth and ninth in two races. I say settle because in 2003, Gordon swept the season, giving him five career wins at Martinsville. He is second among active drivers for career wins. Martinsville has been a track where Gordon has been equally good at all junctures of his career. He’s finished in the top 5 in half of his career starts.

Rusty Wallace (10-1): He won this race last season, a record seventh at that venue. This is Rusty’s final season. He’s 0-for-1 in the first of six short track races that he has a real legitimate shot at winning. Last week at Bristol he got himself tangled up a few times, but had one of the faster cars on the track. Look for better results this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (12-1): Had a nice run at Bristol and should do the same this week. Prior to stumbling to a 33rd last fall at Martinsville, Junior had five straight top 5 finishes at Martinsville. Regardless of the junk he’s driving, he should do well. Martinsville is more dependent on the individual driver than any track other than a road course. In the past, junk cars driven by Bobby Hamilton, Ricky Rudd, John Andretti, and Ricky Craven have all gone to the winner’s circle. Expect a solid run from Junior as the team attempts to salvage something before the 1½ mile ovals resume.

Jeff Burton (25/1). A nice long shot. Burton used to dominate Martinsville when he drove for Jack Roush, littering nearly every race with a top 5. He had a stretch of seven top 5 finishes in nine starts. His only win came in the fall of 1997. After struggling at the end of his regime with Roush and finding his groove with Richard Childress, he may finally be settled in and hit his old form on the home state track. Burton was very impressive at Bristol until a certain someone ended it for him.