Martinsville may be small in size, but it looms large in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship battle. DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 16, 2002)-- Martinsville Speedway may be the smallest track in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but it suddenly...
Martinsville may be small in size, but it looms large in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship battle.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 16, 2002)-- Martinsville Speedway may be the smallest track in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but it suddenly may become one of the biggest in terms of the title aspirations of Tony Stewart.
Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac) heads to the tricky .526-mile oval for Sunday's Old Dominion 500 holding a 97-point lead over his closest pursuer, rookie Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), and embroiled in the tightest points battle among the top five with five races left since the current scoring system was established in 1975. Mark Martin (No. 6 Pfizer/Viagra Ford) lurks 122 points behind; rookie Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL/Mobil 1 Ford), 165; and Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Ford), 182.
Each race in recent weeks has been pivotal in the fortunes of several drivers, either enhancing or detracting from their title hopes. Stewart, Newman and Wallace have risen while others such as Martin and defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), who has slipped to sixth and 211 points back, have been victimized.
Stewart has had the most dramatic upswing in recent weeks. He jumped from third to first in the points race following his runner-up finish at Talladega, marking the first time in his four-year career he held the top spot. He followed with a third-place effort at Charlotte last week to increase his lead by 25 more points heading into Martinsville.
"We did everything that we could do," Stewart said of last week's performance. "We stayed ahead of everybody who is right near us in points. If we can't win the race each week, we'll take the best finish we can and hope that we get more points than the rest of them. We stuck to our game plan."
And if history dictates, Stewart departing Charlotte with the lead places the odds directly in his favor. Since 1975-- under the current points system-- 22 of the 27 drivers that led the title chase with five races left went on to claim the crown. The only years it did not occur were 1979,' 82,' 90,' 92 and' 96.
Martinsville could be critical in Stewart's run because it has been a feast-or-famine track for him. He has enjoyed four top-seven finishes, including a win in this event from the pole in 2000. On the flip side, he has three finishes of 20th or worse, including a pair of 41st-place efforts. However, he will be boosted by the fact that those four top-seven efforts have come in his last five starts at Martinsville, including a third in the spring event.
"You learn how to protect the car (at Martinsville). You learn how not to beat it up," said Stewart, who has three wins and 14 top-five finishes this season."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 that. After going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient-- out of necessity, basically."
One of the keys to Stewart becoming more patient at a track such as Martinsville has come courtesy of the tutelage from his crew chief, Greg Zipadelli.
"He's been really good, especially from the aspect that he knows that when we're at a track like that, he knows what to look for with my driving style as far as how I might overdrive the car," said Stewart, who will use the same chassis-- No. 44-- in which he led 152 laps and finished third in the spring race."He'll coach me along during a run to take care of my race car and to not overdrive it. So to have him on the radio is a big comfort to me."
Added Zipadelli:"Being smooth, being consistent and hitting your marks will sometimes pay off more than driving the hell out of your race car. Tony's one of those guys who wants to drive and run hard, but there's certain places like Martinsville where that's not always the thing to do. When he won that race at Martinsville, he really did everything that we asked him to, and it paid off. I wish it were that easy all the time, but we know better."