Martinsville: Round six preview

* Round 2: Short-Track Racing, COT Debut Continues * Jeff Gordon Leads Points For First Time Since February '05 * Carl Edwards Regaining 2005 Form * David Ragan Returns To Martinsville With New Respect COT Only Part Of The Story At ...

* Round 2: Short-Track Racing, COT Debut Continues

* Jeff Gordon Leads Points For First Time Since February '05

* Carl Edwards Regaining 2005 Form

* David Ragan Returns To Martinsville With New Respect

COT Only Part Of The Story At Close-Quarters Martinsville

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 27, 2007) -- Martinsville Speedway is the smallest race track in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and thus finds itself bursting at its .526-mile seams this week, due to an overload of news making developments.

To start, Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500 will be the second race of this season's 16-race "rollout" of the "Car of Tomorrow," following the "COT" debuting race on March 25th at Bristol Motor Speedway. But that's only part of this week's picture.

Martinsville also offers the second half of a "back-to-back short-track experience" for competitors, a scheduling situation once commonplace in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing. The two-week slugfest was created two years ago via a schedule adjustment, giving teams a unique early-season challenge.

Along those lines:

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) is likely up to the challenge. He has seven career Martinsville victories -- tops among active drivers and third-best all-time behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11). Fuel to his personal fire: Gordon comes in this weekend atop the series standings for the first time since winning the Daytona 500 to start the 2005 season.

Sunday's race, on paper, has the potential to be a high-profile showdown. The last 10 Martinsville races have been won by former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champions, only one of which -- Rusty Wallace -- is no longer active. Last year's winners were Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) (in the spring) and Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) (fall); in 2005, Gordon won both events. And how about last year's spring race top-five finishers: Stewart, Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) and Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet).

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford) is back, coming in this week 10th in the series points. After his superb 2005 season, last season was a disappointment even though Edwards ended up 12th in the final standings -- because he never cracked the top 10. Edwards returned to the top 10 two weeks ago, after the Atlanta Motor Speedway race.

David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Ford) left Martinsville Speedway last October with mixed emotions after his NASCAR NEXTEL Cup debut. He finished 25th and on the lead lap but he also was involved in three accidents that left some of his rivals a bit dismayed, among them, then-reigning champion Stewart, who called him a "dart without feathers." That was then.

This is now: Ragan, in his first year as Mark Martin's replacement at Roush Fenway Racing, is 22nd in points after starting the year with a fifth-place finish in the Daytona 500. He also is tied for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year points lead with Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 40 Texaco Havoline Dodge).

In the process, his confidence is building.

"I'm continuing to feel more comfortable week in and week out," Ragan said. "I'm working with [crew chief] Jimmy [Fennig] better week in and week out.

"We'll sneak up on this thing; 15, 20 races into the year when we pop up with a strong top-five run, possibly a pole, a win or something down the road, it will surprise everyone.

"That's just the way we want it to play into our hands."

-credit: nascar

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Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya