Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- Round 6: Martinsville Speedway â€¢ Short-track tussle starting critical final five-race push â€¢ A sidebar battle: Kurt Busch vs. Jeff Gordon, for short-track supremacy â€¢ TV ratings rising as Chase...
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- Round 6: Martinsville Speedway
• Short-track tussle starting critical final five-race push
• A sidebar battle: Kurt Busch vs. Jeff Gordon, for short-track supremacy
• TV ratings rising as Chase enters stretch run
• Martinsville makeover: SAFER barriers, new surface greet competitors
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 19, 2004) -- Halfway into the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, the competition comes to a half-mile track where intensity -- and history -- are inherent.
Martinsville Speedway's .526-mile paper clip-shaped oval is the shortest track in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, but it also has the longest history. Martinsville is the only remaining race track that was on the series' inaugural schedule in 1949.
On Sunday, old meets new.
Martinsville has the honor of starting the final five-race Chase stretch that will determine the champion. And just as there's no way to pick a certain favorite in the Chase, it's equally challenging to pick a certain favorite for Sunday's Subway 500.
The reason for that comes down to simple arithmetic:
43 cars + .526-mile + 500 laps uncertainty.
"Martinsville is a lot like Talladega where it's a 'wild-card' race and you can't get away from everyone or anyone," said Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), who won this past Saturday night's event at Charlotte, reinvigorating his championship hopes.
"You're going to have people around you (racing closely) and if somebody makes a mistake you're going to get caught up in it. I think this is the last test for your luck, in a sense."
At least two drivers appear to have a decent shot of combining luck with skill at Martinsville, two drivers representing old and new in what could be cast as a 500-round slugfest for short-track supremacy.
Fourth-year driver Kurt Busch (No. 97 IRWIN/Sharpie Ford), the current Chase points leader, has emerged as the dominant driver at the series' other half-mile track, Bristol Motor Speedway, by winning four of the last six races there. Busch also won the 2002 running of the Subway 500.
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), third in the points, has five Martinsville victories, including a sweep of last season's two events.
"We would love to win this [championship]," Gordon said. "I know the past experience plays a role, but when you look at the way the championship is this year, I just think it's putting the best car and team out there week in and week out."
Added Busch: "Martinsville is one of those short tracks that the Chase contenders are all gonna run strong on. Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) has been strong. He's finished third there so many times. He's on the verge of winning. Jeff Gordon has had an advantage there the past few times. We won there back in 2002. You just go down the list."
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
In addition to Busch and Gordon, there are other Chase contenders to consider, going into Martinsville:
Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) has six top-10 finishes in 11 starts at Martinsville, three top fives and a victory in the 2000 fall race. Stewart is sixth in the Chase standings. Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford), fifth in the points, has two victories, three poles and 20 top 10s in 37 Martinsville starts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) would seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough at Martinsville. He has five top fives in nine starts there.
THE PRESSURE'S ON
Time's running out, and the following Chase contenders need a break from tradition, at Martinsville, to improve their championship chances:
Fourth-place Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford) has 11 starts at Martinsville but only one top-10 finish.
Tenth-place Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) has one top-five finish in 18 Martinsville races.
Reigning series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford), seventh in the Chase standings, has nine Martinsville starts, but only one top-five finish.
TV TIMEOUT: RATINGS RISING AS CHASE PROCEEDS
Preliminary national ratings released by Nielsen Media Research show that last Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway was watched by an average of 5,421,000 households on the NBC broadcast, a 16% increase over last season. An average of 8,170,000 viewers tuned in to the prime-time event, a 9% increase over last season.
Martinsville Speedway has been "spruced up" for the Chase. Competitors at the Subway 500 will be racing across a new surface, one encircled by the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier system.
The track was resurfaced (asphalt and concrete) following the track's spring race. In the exits of Turns 2 and 4, where concrete extends onto asphalt, the concrete has been extended an extra 100 feet.
The SAFER barriers, installed last month, extend 832 feet on the outside wall of the first and second turns; 640 feet on the outside of the third and fourth turns; 706 feet along the inside frontstretch wall; and 569 feet along the inside of the backstretch wall.
"The first thing I saw when I got to Martinsville [to test] was the addition of the SAFER barriers," said Elliott Sadler. "Believe it or not on such a little track we are carrying a ton of speed into the corners. They also added the barriers on the inside of the straightaway walls. The addition of the barriers means that the track owners put safety first and it's a great thing to see.
"The track [surface] is smooth and from what I was told they really, really put a lot of effort into making sure it was as close to perfect as a track can be. They did a great job because the transition from the concrete to the asphalt is unbelievable. I'm glad they added another 100 feet of concrete. That will be a lot easier on the motor guys and on the driver. That was always the biggest obstacle here at Martinsville, getting the car hooked up from the concrete to the asphalt."
There have been 13 different NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race winners in 2004. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are tied with a series-leading five victories this season. ... Johnson has posted a series-high 16 top-five finishes. ... Gordon has a series-high 21 top-10 finishes. ... Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) posted his sixth Bud Pole of the 2004 season in qualifying for the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway last week, tying him with Gordon for the lead in the 2004 Bud Pole Award competition. Newman has won the award each of the two years since his full-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup career began in 2002.
Tony Stewart has grown accustomed to racing at Martinsville. Credit experience, he said. "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."
What: Subway 500 (Round 6 of the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/Race No. 32 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)
Where: Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
When: Sunday, Oct. 24, 1 p.m. (ET).
TV: NBC, 12:30 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.
Posted awards: $4,695,147.
Race length: 500 laps/263 miles.
Track layout: .526-mile oval.
2003 winner: Jeff Gordon.
2003 polesitter: Jeff Gordon.
Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup standings: 1. Kurt Busch 5,850. 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 5,826. 3. Jeff Gordon 5,776. 4. Elliott Sadler 5,693. 5. Mark Martin 5,664. 6. Tony Stewart 5,646. 7. Matt Kenseth 5,635. 8. Jimmie Johnson 5,623. 9. Ryan Newman 5,579. 10. Jeremy Mayfield 5,501.