Martinsville's Red Hot Dogs Let You Know if You're in 'The Black' KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 25, 2009) -- In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there are no bailouts. You either are, or you aren't, and any stimulus package is one you make for yourself...
Martinsville's Red Hot Dogs Let You Know if You're in 'The Black'
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. (March 25, 2009) -- In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there are no bailouts. You either are, or you aren't, and any stimulus package is one you make for yourself by having a good race on Sunday.
Nowhere is this point made clearer than in round six of the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. It's there where a team's current standing in owner points touches nearly every aspect of its program.
For the first five races of a Sprint Cup season, NASCAR refers to the final owner standings from the previous year to determine everything from where team's transporters park in the garage area to when its cars are inspected to how they'll draw for qualifying. Those teams that finished in the top-35 in last year's owner standings are not only guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of the 2009 season, but also guaranteed a parking spot for their transporter in the garage area.
Last Sunday's race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway was the fifth of the season, and with round six now upon teams with the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville, a team's current standing in owner points literally lets them know where they stand within the Sprint Cup hierarchy.
The best economic indicator of a team's health is where its transporter parks within the confines of Martinsville's .526-mile oval.
In the middle of the track's infield is a hot dog stand that sells the ubiquitous red, Jesse Jones hot dogs. A Martinsville staple, the red hot dog also determines which teams are running in the black and which ones are running in the red -- at least in terms of overall performance.
If a team's hauler is on the right side of the hot dog stand toward turns one and two, they're in the black. If they're on the left side of the hot dog stand closer to turns three and four, they're in the red.
In business, cash is king. In the Sprint Cup Series, points are king. The more you have, the better off you are and the more cushion you have in the face of a downturn. It's the currency of Sprint Cup.
The balance sheet of Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS, is positively in the black thanks to the 11-year Sprint Cup veteran's seventh-place point standing. Not bad for his first year as a driver/owner in NASCAR's elite series.
His Stewart-Haas Racing team was, for all intents and purposes, a start-up organization when it rolled into Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway for the season-opening Daytona 500. Known formerly as Haas CNC Racing, the two-car team had only one car in the top-35 in 2008 points. Those points went to Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, assuring him a starting spot in this season's first five races. Stewart's No. 14 was out of the top-35, but thanks to his 2005 Sprint Cup championship, Stewart was guaranteed a starting spot no matter what happened in qualifying by virtue of him being the most recent champion outside of the top-35 in points.
It was a nice safety net, but an unwelcome thought for Stewart. Merit was how he intended to earn a starting berth in the year's first five races, and he delivered, never qualifying worse than 15th. Those strong starts led to strong finishes, as Stewart notched three top-10s to earn his seventh-place point standing.
As such, when the shiny black Peterbilt that hauls Stewart's red No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet pulls into Martinsville, it will signify a team that is solidly in the black, for it will be well to the right of the track's hot dog stand. And for Stewart, that's a change he can believe in.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How satisfying will it be for you to walk through the gates at Martinsville and see the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot transporter parked well to the right of the hot dog stand near turns one and two?
"We're essentially a start-up race team, so to start the season out of the top-35 has been unfamiliar territory for me and a lot of the people on our team. But at Martinsville, we're going to be parked wherever we're at in points, and that's something that's going to be a proud moment -- knowing that we're going to be mixed in with some of the biggest teams in NASCAR. From day one, I've been proud of everything this team has been able to do. The proof of that is when you get going at the racetrack and park your equipment next to everybody else's."
You're five races into your tenure as a driver/owner in the Sprint Cup Series. What's been the biggest eye-opener?
"The budget and the size of the budget. I know that if you're in the plus, you're good, and if you're in the minus, you're bad. I don't see the bills coming in and going out. Obviously, I'm updated in meetings where we are at financially, but there hasn't been that one big shocker yet that has happened in my short time as a team owner. I think that's a great thing. I'm sure it's going to happen. I just don't know when it's going to be. I think that's a credit to Bobby Hutchens (director of competition) and Darian Grubb (crew chief, No. 14) and Tony Gibson (crew chief, No. 39).
"The shop runs like clockwork. It's run exactly the way we thought it would and hoped it would. I still believe exactly like Joe Gibbs has said so many times: your success is made by the people that you have surrounding you, and I feel like we've got a good group of people. The great thing is that everybody does their job. I don't feel like I have to watch the guy that's paying the bills, and I don't have to watch the bills coming in and out because we've got good people who to take care of that area. We've got a competition director in Bobby Hutchens who is always conscious with where our budgets are and where the money that we have available needs to be spent to make the teams go faster. Hiring those right people in those right spots, it's taken a lot of pressure off of me having to oversee everybody. I feel like I could literally not go to the shop for the whole year almost, and other than signing paperwork, it would run just fine with or without me in the shop. They've got it pretty efficient right now and everybody is really comfortable working with each other."
In starting Stewart-Haas Racing, your key people all came from different organizations. How have you been able to get all of those different mindsets of how things should be done molded into a way you think they should be done?
"We've got guys that have come from five different organizations here that are running this organization with us. I don't think you necessarily tell them this is exactly how it has to be done. I think we've tried to collectively take what we thought were the best ideas from all five organizations and try to utilize them to make ourselves even better. So there's a lot of trial and error in all the organizations we've been a part of to get them where they are. Having that knowledge from the five of us, there are things that we've seen that we liked, and there are things that we didn't like. For all five of us to sit down and talk about that, that's really helped us get a direction of how we at least wanted to start. We didn't expect it to be perfect right off the bat, and we haven't been, but you start with what you think is the best way to do things, and as you go, you make adjustments as you need to. To date right now, I feel like we've got a really good direction of how we do things."
(Stewart came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Darian Grubb, Stewart's crew chief, came from Hendrick Motorsports. Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate, came from Penske Championship Racing. Tony Gibson, Newman's crew chief, came from Dale Earnhardt Inc. And Bobby Hutchens, director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, came from Richard Childress Racing. -- Ed.)
Stewart-Haas Racing receives its engines from Hendrick Motorsports. All of the top teams have an in-house engine program. Do you ever envision creating an in-house engine program at Stewart-Haas Racing?
"I don't see us making plans to do that. You look at Hendrick's engine program, and I don't think they're lacking anything there. The last three years have proven that. I think you look at past experiences and you look at Darrell Waltrip's experiences as a car owner, and he'll be the first one to tell you that the mistake he made was going from a program like that, which kept him where he needed to be, to thinking he could make it better by starting his own program. That actually led to the end of it. We've got a great partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, and I don't see us straying off from their program and their engines. That's part of the reason why Ryan (Newman) and I are so excited to be here. The opportunity to work with those guys and our input on top of Jeff's (Gordon) and Jimmie's (Johnson) and Dale's (Earnhardt Jr.) and Mark's (Martin) input that they have from their program -- being able to have our two cents worth in this program makes it better for all six of us."
Survival is a term often used to describe racing at Martinsville. How do you survive at Martinsville?
"You learn how to protect the car. You learn how to not beat it up. You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience. Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like Martinsville. Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient -- out of necessity, basically."
Short track racing has been known for beating and banging, where contact between two cars usually results in at least one car getting spun out. But has the current generation racecar, with its common nose and rear bumpers, changed that dynamic?
"It has. With these cars you don't have the kinds of accidents where guys get turned around because the bumpers on all these cars match up so well. If you get in a situation where a guy checks up in front of you and you run into him by accident and the guy behind you hits you, you're not going to spin each other out. That's made short track racing fun again. You're not worried about having to explain to somebody that whatever contact you had was an accident. And short tracks aren't cookie-cutter. They're all one-of-a-kind and they all have their own personality. Martinsville fits that bill, and it also has a cool trophy that's a one-of-a-kind."
No matter what kind of racecar you're driving, brakes are incredibly important at Martinsville. How does a driver conserve his brakes for 500 laps?
"You try to stay off the brakes as much as possible. You always hear the crew chief talking about floating the car into the corner, and what they mean by that is instead of driving it really deep into the corner and using a lot of brake pressure, the theory is to lift a little earlier and use less brake pressure. You'll end up running virtually the same lap time as you would if you drove hard into the corner. But when you've got a 500-lap race at Martinsville and you've got to use the brakes hard twice a lap, that's 1,000 times during a race where you're asking that brake system to slow down a 3,400-pound race car. If you can be easy on those brakes for the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race, then when you really need those brakes to battle for the win at the end -- you've got 'em."
It's sometimes debated that because of Martinsville's rural location that it doesn't deserve two dates on the Sprint Cup schedule. As a racer and as a promoter -- you own Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio -- what do you think about that?
"Martinsville deserves two dates. All you've got to do is come watch a race at Martinsville to realize that. There are no bad finishes at Martinsville."
There was a time early in your career that you weren't that fond of Martinsville. What changed?
"You're right. I can remember saying that we ought to fill it up with water and have the Bassmasters Classic there, or demolish the whole infield and pave it and make it a mini mall. But since then, Clay Campbell (track president) has done a lot of work at Martinsville and made huge improvements to make it what it is now. It's a fun, racy racetrack.
"Back in the day, if you couldn't stay on the bottom, you were in big trouble. If you got moved to the outside, you were getting freight-trained. That wasn't fun. But now, you can pass on the outside, you can race on the outside, and sometimes, the groove where you want to be is on the outside depending on how your car is driving.
"Clay took the time and the effort to make a whole new garage setup, where everyone has a really nice garage stall. They're some of the nicest garage stalls on the circuit. To do the things that they've done, the days of turning Martinsville into a mini mall are long gone. Clay is one of the more proactive promoters in the series, and he's tried really hard to make things better."
DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
How satisfying will it be for you to walk through the gates at Martinsville and see the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot transporter parked well to the right of the hot dog stand near turns one and two?
"It's going to be a very, very good feeling. We've had some of the benefits of being out of the top-35, at least in terms of qualifying -- being able to go out late in qualifying with the other 'go-or-go-homers.' It's probably helped us out in a few instances because the weather is typically a little cooler then. But being among the top-35 beginning at Martinsville is really going to help us out by allowing us to get back on a schedule that's the same as the guys who are running in the top-10 every week. You get to go through tech as soon as you unload. When you're out of the top-35, you're sort of at the mercy of the schedule. You don't really know when you're going to go through tech or when you're going to go through the templates or when you're going to get your fuel cell checked among other things. We're usually pushing it really close to practice. Now, we're going to be up front where all that stuff goes in sequential order like it's supposed to. We'll be ready for practice every week and have a little bit more time to prepare."
Has the team's performance so far this year met your expectations, or has it also been a bit of a pleasant surprise?
"It's right along the lines of what we expected. We've probably had a little better luck than we were expecting to have. We've had some really fast racecars to keep us up front. We haven't had those top-five cars that we've been shooting for. We've probably had two chances to win races or at least finish in the top-five. We got rained-out at Daytona and then at Las Vegas we had a loose wheel and finished 26th. That was pretty disappointing. But all of the small problems we've had, we were expecting. We're not putting ourselves out of races, we're not crashing, we're not having major issues in the pits or anything like that, so that's definitely helped. It's been a growing experience. I think we're a little bit ahead of the curve, just because of luck and some of the things we've had work our way, but it also shows that we don't stop working, and a perfect example of that was Atlanta where we came from two laps down, fought hard to get back on the lead lap and got a good, solid top-10 finish. Those are the kind of things that we're proud of. I think we're ahead of the game a bit because our teamwork and camaraderie has been really strong."
You grew up in the tiny town of Floyd, Va., about an hour northwest of Martinsville. How often did you go to Martinsville as you worked your way up the racing ladder?
"I actually never went to a Sprint Cup race until I started working in Cup. I went to a lot of Late Model races there from about 1991 on through 2000 working on cars that were racing, but that's really the only time I made it there. I've never sat in the stands there. I've always been in the garage working.
"I worked with Johnny Rumley, Satch Worley and Jeff Agnew was probably the biggest name driver I worked with for a long time. I worked for him for about 10 years. Lots of memorable moments from that. I think it was my first year at Martinsville and I was there with Satch Worley and we were in practice and his steering wheel came off. He didn't check it after he had gotten back in the car before going out on the track again. He absolutely destroyed that car and he came back to the pits with the steering wheel in his hands and said, 'Guess I should've put this on a little better' That was my introduction to Martinsville. There were like 160 Late Models that showed up, and of course we didn't make the show because we crashed."
Do you have a lot of family and friends who come out to Martinsville to see you and take in the race?
"I have a lot of friends around that area. My family is really close to Martinsville. Everybody is probably within an hour-and-a-half of that area. A lot of friends come down and see me, and even when they can't make the race, it sparks some memories and we'll get on the phone and call each other. It's cool to see everybody and catch up on old times."
What goes into making a car good at Martinsville, beyond making sure the steering wheel is on tight?
"It's all about the weight distribution and then comfort for the driver -- getting everything exactly the way the driver would like to have it. His preference for every little detail from entry to the center of the corner and exit and braking, the throttle application -- everything has to be just right, because Martinsville is all about rhythm. Rhythm is what's going to give you a chance for the pole. Making sure everything is right and making sure you can get every little piece out of the car. In order to go as fast as possible, you have to get the most out of everything that you can get. Every foot of the straightaway and all through the corners -- it's tenths of seconds here and there that really add up. The whole field is probably separated by two- to three-tenths of a second."
Qualifying up front at Martinsville is obviously important. But how do you balance using your practice time to focus on making two qualifying laps when you also have to prepare for a 500-lap race?
"Luckily, you don't have a whole lot of changes between qualifying and race setup. It's more a few things you do for tweaks of speed here and there. Everything else is still about driver comfort, because if he's comfortable in the racecar, he's going to be comfortable for qualifying. You just add a few more things to it to get a little more speed out of it. You make the car a little more aggressive, basically. It's a little more on edge in qualifying, but the driver can drive through that. When you get into race setup, it's hard to pass, so you have to make him even more comfortable inside the car to make sure he can run his line so that he doesn't get pushed out of the way very easily and doesn't get pressured by somebody behind him, because the only way you can really pass there is by doing a bump-and-run. You need to get somebody else off their rhythm to get around them."
Beyond a good starting spot, what does a good qualifying position give you at Martinsville?
"It's huge there. The pit road is very tight and it's very narrow. You have a lot of fighting going on to get into your box. The boxes are very short and you can't get the angles you need to get in the box, do your pit stop, and then get back out of the box very cleanly if someone's in front of you. It's tough all the way around there. The pit crews -- if you get too close to the wall you can't get the jack up because you can't move the handle as far down. And then the cars racing by you, they're going to be four feet away because the wall is that close. It's a hairy predicament all the way around. So, the better you can do in qualifying, the better pit selection you can get and help yourself out in some of those areas."
How stressful is it for you as a crew chief, as you're the one who has to call the driver into and out of the pit box?
"It's not that big of a deal for the driver. It's more for the crew guys because they have to get around the car and give it three-feet of room as he's coming into the box, but there might be someone else coming into the box in front of him that they have to watch for. I have to give them the heads up as to who's coming around them. There are a lot of things happening on pit road in a very short amount of time."