This week it’s off to another short track event as the "Mean Season" for the NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers continues.
The Mean Season actually consists of six races — two each at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond. With the short distances and configuration of the track, all the cars must go slower. As a result, the drivers feel much more comfortable bumping and banging each other around the track.
Bristol is where the driver’s tempers usually reach the boiling point. It’s the smallest track, but also has the highest banking. Cars stick to the track at maximum speed the same way a roulette wheel has the ball spin round and round. Because of the force versus gravity mix, the cars are able to go just as fast as they do at Richmond.
Despite Bristol being a quarter mile shorter than Richmond, the speeds at both tracks are similar. Martinsville is a traditional half-mile flat track shaped like a paper clip, where the average lap speed never exceeds 100 mph.
Beyond car damage, breaks take a beating. There are 500 laps around the track. Each of the straights is like a drag race, where the drivers mash the pedals. They can only mash for a short time before going through this process of braking, downshifting, turning at maximum speed and then attempting to exit the turns the fastest without losing the backend. There are 500 laps, but two sides of the track. That means this process goes on 1,000 times.
After about 25 turns around each end of the tracks, the brake drums and rotors turn to near molten lava states. There are then issues with the heat of the drums damaging the brake lines. If that doesn’t get them, other brake issues such as the caliper housing or master cylinder problems occur anytime there is excessive over braking.
There is no track in NASCAR where brakes are more critical than Martinsville, a great equalizer. The driver can make a difference in where the car ends up, unlike most of the other tracks in which the car takes the driver to its ultimate capability. In the past decade of Martinsville races, we have seen some huge payouts at the betting window.
There are some heavyweight financed teams enjoying great success at Martinsville, but no other track can claim so many upsets. Virginia native Jeff Burton upset Rusty Wallace in ”˜97 paying off at 18-1. The next year, Bobby Hamilton handsomely paid 25-1, despite being the pole sitter.
NASCAR betting wasn’t like it is today, so the Vegas books didn’t follow too closely. Hamilton went on to lead almost every lap in route to victory. During that same year in the fall race, single car owner Ricky Rudd took his Tide ride to victory lane despite having the flu. Rudd closed at 60-1. In ”˜99 John Andretti posted what was deemed an improbable win for Petty, even though the same car finished third two years before with Hamilton driving. The Andretti win paid 45-1.
Fast forward to 2001 where Ricky Craven won at 40-1. Since then, the last eight races at Martinsville had winners that surprised nobody.
Jeff Gordon (5-1) has won four of the last six Martinsville races. Over his career, Gordon has seven career Martinsville wins. He could probably take a lesser vehicle than what he’s given daily with Hendrick Motorsports and have a great run. When you combine his great driving skills with the equipment the team has, it’s easy to see how Gordon has been so successful.
In 26 career starts at Martinsville, Gordon has 20 top 10 finishes, including 14 top 5s. That is old school, Petty type, NASCAR dominance.
Jimmie Johnson (7-1), Gordon’s teammate, has finished no worse than ninth in his last seven starts. Four were top 4 finishes that include one victory. Johnson would be the closest driver, who could compete with Gordon’s accomplishments of consistency over the same span.
After an awful Bristol run that dropped Johnson to third place in points, he should be primed to get going again. So should crew chief Chad Knaus, who watched his driver lead in points with the interim Chief. One race with Knaus back and all heck breaks loose.
Kurt Busch, last week’s champ at Bristol, has a win at Martinsville. The No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge’s former driver, Rusty Wallace, was a seven-time winner at Martinsville.
To show just how young NASCAR is today and just how good Jeff Gordon has been, there are only a few current drivers who have been past winners at Martinsville. Gibbs teammates Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte have one win each, Dale Jarrett has a win, and Mark Martin(sville) two. That’s it!
If looking for a correlation between the two half-mile short tracks of Martinsville and Bristol, the only drivers you can look at with success are Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Each has plenty of Sprint car experience before joining NASCAR. Ryan Newman falls into the same grouping off his great Martinsville consistency.
Another Sprint car driver, Kasey Kahne, finished second last year. He has been resurgent this season after a tumultuous first two seasons where a lot of unfair expectations were placed upon him. After five races this season, Kahne is still sitting second in the points standings. This will be a real test for him this week, but he’s looking like a much better driver of late.