Martinsville II: Round 32 preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Martinsville * Jeff Burton In The Hunt * Jimmie Johnson Eyes Third Straight Championship * Loop Data: Hendrick Teammates Strong At Martinsville * Virginians Plentiful In NSCS Garage Jeff Burton ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Martinsville
* Jeff Burton In The Hunt
* Jimmie Johnson Eyes Third Straight Championship
* Loop Data: Hendrick Teammates Strong At Martinsville
* Virginians Plentiful In NSCS Garage

Jeff Burton Establishes Himself As Title Contender

As the 2008 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup reaches its mid-point, there have been ample storylines touting the top contenders for the championship.

First, there was the attention given to Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota), who dominated the season's first 26 races by winning eight times to lock up the Chase's No. 1 seed.

Then, there was the underdog story of Greg Biffle (No. 16 DISH Network Ford), who came out of nowhere to win the first two races of the Chase. Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford) has also been at the forefront, as he maintained a firm hold of positioning himself among the top two spots.

The past couple weeks, the focus has been on Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), as the two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has demonstrated he's not going to relinquish his crown without a battle.

Now, based upon his Bank of America 500 victory last Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway coupled with his consistent performance over the first half of the Chase, you can add another name to the list of contenders for the 2008 series championship -- veteran Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet).

Burton has indeed been a model of consistency throughout this season and as a result, has been flying under the radar somewhat. However, he has been in the top 12 the entire season, and for a four-week stretch early on (after the first Martinsville race until after the first Richmond race), he was the series points leader. In fact, he's only strayed outside the top five in points four times this season.

Burton won his 21st career NASCAR Sprint Cup race last Saturday at LMS. It was his second win of 2008, marking the first time since 2001 he has posted more than one victory in a season. Burton is no stranger to competing for a series title. He finished third in the 2000 standings, fourth in 1997 and posted back-to-back fifth-place finishes in 1998-99.

Burton says he gets a special feeling when he competes at Martinsville, the .526-mile short track located just 50 miles from his hometown of South Boston, Va.

"There's no question, when I come to Martinsville, it's different," said Burton. "There are a lot of people who supported us when no one knew who we were who are still in the stands today. We take a lot of pride in that."

Burton has one win (2nd race of 1997), seven top fives and 17 top 10s at Martinsville. Burton knows that the tricky short track can quickly wreak havoc.

"I've got a feeling some things will happen with some of the Chase contenders this week at Martinsville," said Burton.

Jimmie Johnson Pads Lead: Points Toward Third Straight Championship

Two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson takes a 69-point lead into Race 6 of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at a venue where he has nearly a flawless record during his career. Since his first race at Martinsville Speedway in 2002, Johnson has posted four wins, 12 top-10 and nine top-five finishes.

Johnson is attempting to become only the second driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive series championships. Cale Yarborough accomplished the feat from 1976-77-78. While his 69-point lead over Jeff Burton may seem a bit secure, recent history indicates otherwise. The points leader with five races remaining has failed to win the championship in each of the past two seasons.

In 2006, Johnson was in seventh place and 146 points behind leader Jeff Burton with five races to go. Johnson went on to win his first title by 56 points, a swing of 202 points.

Last season, Johnson was in second place, 68 points behind teammate Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Johnson won the championship by 77 points, a 145-point swing.

Loop Data: Hendrick Teammates Shine At Martinsville

Yes, Jeff Gordon made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and currently sits eighth in the standings. Yes, he has been in the top 12 for a solid 22 of the 31 weeks. Yes, his Driver Rating is 95.2, which is fifth-best in the series. But, by some accounts, this has been a tough year for the four-time series champion. That's what can happen when you set the bar that high.

For one, Gordon's top 10 production is down. But, how could it not be? Last season, Gordon scored a modern era record 30 top-10 finishes. This year, he has only 15. Unless he finishes inside the top 10 in each of the remaining five races, he'll have less than 20 top-10 finishes for only the fifth time in his career. What's been more troublesome for Gordon is his absence from Victory Lane in 2008. The 81-time race winner is in danger of ending a 14-year streak with at least one win per season -- actually Gordon has posted at least two wins a year for the past 14 years. But, up next on the schedule is Martinsville, a track at which Gordon has displayed unparalleled brilliance over his career.

In 31 starts, Gordon has 25 top-10 finishes. He is the active leader in wins with seven. He is also on an incredible seven-race Martinsville top-five streak. Over that span of top fives, Gordon has a Driver Rating of 124.5, an Average Running Position of 7.2, 420 Fastest Laps Run and Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 86.7%. A top 10 finish would seem to be a lock for Gordon. But a win will be tough for one reason: Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is likewise strong at Martinsville. He has scored 12 straight top-10 finishes at Martinsville, which includes four wins (including a season sweep in 2007). In the seven races since the inception of Loop Data in 2005 (which includes six top fives), Johnson has a Driver Rating of 121.2, an Average Running Position of 7.1, 337 Fastest Laps Run and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 87.7%.

Native Virginians Aplenty In NSCS Garage

The Commonwealth of Virginia boasts more than 30 drivers, crew members and team members among those that work in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage.

Drivers Jeff Burton (South Boston), Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota, Chesterfield) and Elliott Sadler (No. 19 Best Buy Dodge, Emporia) are all from Virginia.

Crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker (Brookneal) (No. 66 Haas Automation Chevrolet) and car chiefs David Bryant (Farmville) (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) and Todd Brewer (Manassas) (No. 96 DLP HDTV Toyota) also hail from the Commonwealth.

Other NSCS crew members from Virginia include: Jeff Curtis (Fairfax -- No. 31 engineer); Darian Grubb (Floyd -- No. 88 engineer); Tom Stewart (Hampton -- No. 88 engineer); Brandon Evans (South Hill -- No. 48 engineer); Rick MacGowan (Reston -- No. 96 engineer); Kevin Kidd (Tazewell -- No. 19 engineer); Tommy Wallace (Richmond -- No. 07 mechanic); Jim Jenkins (Hampton -- No. 88 mechanic); Alan Howard (Covington -- No. 84 shock specialist); Todd Bosserman (Waynesboro -- No. 48 shock specialist); Tracey Ramsey (Fredricksburg -- No. 31 tire specialist); Charles Moles (Floyd -- No. 07 tire specialist); Franky Nester (Ridgeway -- No. 31 transporter driver); Barry Sheppard (Stuart -- No. 07 transport driver); Kirk George (Ararat -- No. 24 transport driver); Jay Hackney (Haysi -- No. 2 front tire changer); Curt Bowman (Meadows of Dan -- No. 31 gas man); Caleb Hurd (Pulaski -- No. 24 gas man); Rodney Rhodes (Hickory -- No. 10 gas man); Andy Pope (Midlothian -- No. 21 gas man); Ed Watkins (Richmond -- No. 19 jack man); Ben Surface (Pulaski -- No. 96 rear tire changer); Mark Robertsson (Richmond -- No. 20 spotter); Curtis Markham (Glen Allen -- No. 11 spotter) and Ryan Quann (Richmond -- No. 42 pit support).

NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference: Jimmie Johnson

This week's guest on the NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference was series points leader Jimmie Johnson.

Here are some excerpts:

On the opportunity to win three consecutive NASCAR titles: "I'm excited about the possibilities. I feel like I'm focusing on the right things. And the team has been doing a great job calling the race, preparing cars, pit stops. I feel like I'm doing a good job driving the car. We're hitting on all eight cylinders and looking good. So I'm excited about these next five...

On becoming the first driver to do so since Cale Yarborough's three titles in 1976-78: "If it does take place, it would be a very special thing. I've been able to accomplish a lot more in this sport than I ever thought I would. To find my name in the record books and hopefully have it in a situation to be in the company of Cale in such an elite situation would mean the world to me...

On childhood memories of Yarborough's career: "When I was growing up in Southern California, NASCAR was so far away. I would catch a few of the big races during the season. One of the names I did know when I was a kid was Cale's. I was a fan of Cale's as a kid growing up. I just loved his stocky attitude and even in appearance. The guy just had muscles all over the place. He was someone that led his actions on track speak for themselves....

On his success at Martinsville Speedway: "I absolutely was terrible at Martinsville the first time there. I knew the equipment was good. (Hendrick Motorsports teammate) Jeff (Gordon) was winning there and won there when we were running so bad. So a lot of it had to do with me learning the track and understanding it. And I think my background did help me. It's not a standard racetrack. It is a quirky little place. Once I figured out the rhythm to it, things started to click, and I could give good information to (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) so he could work on his set up."


Martinsville Makes Some Upgrades:

Martinsville Speedway has made some improvements to its facility since the spring race, including:

A new video display scoreboard has been installed. Positioned 86 feet above the ground in the center of the infield, the scoring tower is now topped by three 30x20 feet video screens that will be utilized by Sprint Vision on NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race weekends.

The old pit road surface was removed during the summer and the asphalt was replaced with concrete.

The entrance gate to the infield has been reworked to allow for the installation of roughly 100 feet of SAFER barrier to cover the Turn 4 pit gate and the exit of Turn 4.

The infield media center has doubled in size and has enhanced its amenities.

Martinsville Milestone:

Sunday's event marks the 120th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held in 1949, with Red Byron driving Raymond Parks'-owned Oldsmobile to Victory Lane. Richard Petty's 15 NSCS victories at Martinsville is the most by any driver.

Manufacturers' Battle Still Tight:

The 2008 Manufacturers' championship battle remains tight, with Toyota holding a slim six-point lead over Chevrolet (189-183). Ford is third with 178 points, while Dodge is fourth with 132 points. Chevrolet has won a total of 30 Manufacturers' titles, including the previous five in a row.

Mike Bliss to Pilot The No. 00 Toyota:

Veteran driver Mike Bliss will attempt to qualify and race the No. 00 Champion Mortgage Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing this weekend at Martinsville. In the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Bliss has 13 career wins, 18 poles, 61 top-five and 107 top-10 finishes. In the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Bliss has racked up one win, three poles, 20 top-five and 50 top-10 showings. The No. 00 Toyota is currently 63 points out of the top 35.

Up Next: Race 7 In The Chase: Atlanta Motor Speedway

Race 7 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be the Pep Boys Auto 500, Sunday, Oct. 26 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and current points leader Jimmie Johnson is the defending race champion. In fact, Johnson swept both events at Atlanta in 2007.

Johnson is a three-time winner at Atlanta, having also won the fall race there in 2004.

Greg Biffle was last year's pole sitter. Jeff Gordon's four wins at Atlanta rank first among active drivers. The late Dale Earnhardt won nine times at this track -- the most of any driver.


Race 6 in the Chase: TUMS QuikPak 500

The Place: Martinsville Speedway

The Date: Sunday, October 19
The Time: 1:30 p.m. (ET)

TV: ABC, 1 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN (Local Affiliate: WZBB-FM 99.9), SIRIUS Satellite Radio

The Track: .526-mile oval
The Distance: 500 laps/263 miles

2007 Winner: Jimmie Johnson
2007 Polesitter: Jeff Gordon

Pre-Race Schedule:
Friday -- Practice, 12-1:30 p.m. Qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 12:50 -1:50 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Michael Waltrip , Greg Biffle , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Barry Sheppard , Mike Bliss , Tom Stewart , Carl Edwards , Elliott Sadler , Denny Hamlin , Cale Yarborough , Kyle Busch
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Michael Waltrip Racing