*Time For A Rebound: Johnson, Gordon In Half-Mile Comfort Zone *Fifth-Place Earnhardt After First Martinsville Victory *Michael McDowell Steps In As Dale Jarrett Retires *The Bubble: Top 35 Guarantees Based On 2008 Points *60th Anniversary Season:...
*Time For A Rebound: Johnson, Gordon In Half-Mile Comfort Zone
*Fifth-Place Earnhardt After First Martinsville Victory
*Michael McDowell Steps In As Dale Jarrett Retires
*The Bubble: Top 35 Guarantees Based On 2008 Points
*60th Anniversary Season: NASCAR Returns To One Of 1948's Tracks
*Second-Straight Short-Track Week Bodes Well For Johnson, Gordon
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 25, 2008) -- By any calculation, the following numbers just don't add up.
Together, Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) have won a total of six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships -- but not a single race thus far this season.
Five races worth of frustration finds Johnson 13th in the series standings, Gordon 14th.
That has opened the door for some early-season optimism by everyone else, following last season's Johnson-Gordon domination that resulted in 16 victories and a 1-2 finish in the final standings.
Don't be surprised if the door gets slammed shut, for at least a week, come Sunday, as the series visits a short track for the second straight week, following the previous event at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Martinsville Speedway -- site of Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500 -- seemingly arrives at a most opportune time for the two struggling past champions. Johnson has won the last three Martinsville events; together, he and Gordon have won eight of the last 10 races at the .526-mile oval, the series' only track that was on the very first NASCAR schedule in 1948.
Sixty years of Martinsville amounts to a lot of history but since 2003, history had been made, basically, by Johnson and Gordon -- especially in April of 2007 when the two seriously tested the stability of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' "new car" with a contact-laden battle over the race's closing laps. Johnson outslugged his Hendrick Motorsports teammate by a scant .065 seconds.
Earnhardt Seeks Breakthrough Win; McDowell Seeks Solid Debut
The upside for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) coming into Sunday's event at Martinsville Speedway:
He's fifth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings, the highest-ranked of Hendrick Motorsports' star-studded four-man team.
The downside: He has never won at Martinsville Speedway.
That's not to say he hasn't been close.
Earnhardt has seven top fives in 16 Martinsville starts -- including a fifth in 2007's spring event.
Of Earnhardt's 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories, four have come on short tracks (ovals less than one mile in length) -- three at Richmond International Raceway, one at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the learning curve this week we find Michael McDowell, who is technically replacing David Reutimann in the No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. But in reality, he's replacing NASCAR legend Dale Jarrett, who retired after the March 16 race at Bristol, leaving the No. 44 UPS Toyota to David Reutimann, the former driver of the No. 00.
McDowell is assured of making his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start Sunday; the No. 00 is safely within the top 35 of the owner points and is thus guaranteed a spot in the field.
Said McDowell: "To make your debut at Martinsville is tough. Lot of laps ... lot of hard laps. ... I've done a lot of training to make sure I'm in shape for 500 laps."
In The Loop: Gordon Rates Highest, At Martinsville
For the season, Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's/Interstate Batteries Toyota) has the top spot in NASCAR's Driver Rating. (See chart at right of page.)
As far as Martinsville Speedway is concerned, that status belongs to Jeff Gordon.
Compilation of track-specific Driver Rating data began in 2005, which means the last six Martinsville events are the basis for Gordon's 124.5 rating.
Gordon's Martinsville success could mean a shake-up in the top 12 once the checkered flag falls Sunday. Gordon sits in 14th-place, 21 points behind 12th-place Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet), and has finished inside the top five in six consecutive Martinsville races.
During that six-race span, Gordon has an Average Running Position of 7.2 (second-best), a series-high 342 Fastest Laps Run, 2,606 Laps in the Top 15 (second) and 147 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), which is fourth-best.
Also hoping a continued Martinsville hot streak will lead to a top-12 spot is Jimmie Johnson, winner of the last three races there. Only once has Johnson finished outside the top 10 at Martinsville -- as a rookie in 2002 in his first trip.
Since then, he's had eight top fives in 11 starts. Since 2005, Johnson has a Driver Rating of 120.8 (second-best), an Average Running Position of 7.3 (third), 296 Fastest Laps Run (second) and has spent 86.2% of the laps in the top 15 (third).
Adding to the possibility of a top-12 shakeup -- Truex struggles at Martinsville. In four starts at the Virginia short track, Truex has never finished better than 19th and has led just one lap. His Martinsville Driver Rating is 58.3 (the lowest of any driver currently in the top 12) and his Average Running Position is 25.3 (also the lowest among the top 12.)
And finally, here are some Loop Data nuggets in support of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances Sunday. His statistics there since 2005 rank comfortably in the top 10 of several categories. He has a Driver Rating of 95.8 (sixth), an Average Running Position of 11.9 (fifth), 205 Fastest Laps Run (fourth) and a series-high 304 Green Flag Passes.
On The Bubble: Hornish Is In, Franchitti's Not
With five races in the books for the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, the weekly guaranteed starting spots start going to the top 35 teams in current car owner point standings. (For this season's first five races, the guarantees went to the top 35 teams in the final 2007 points.)
There are some definite surprises thus far -- on both sides of the "bubble."
Michael Waltrip Racing has all three of its teams in the top 35 -- with Waltrip (No. 55 NAPA Toyota), David Reutimann (No. 44 UPS Toyota) and Michael McDowell (No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota) driving.
Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge) the former Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series champion, is safe for now. Hornish, who started the year with an impressive 15th-place run at the Daytona 500 for Penske Racing, has the 35th and final spot going into Martinsville.
Casey Mears (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg's Chevrolet), part of Hendrick Motorsports' powerhouse lineup, is 33rd, only 12 points ahead of Hornish. Mears, keep in mind, was a winner of one of NASCAR's biggest events last season, the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Jamie McMurray, a member of Jack Roush's well-stocked stable of drivers, is 36th this week, forced to rely on his qualifying speed to make Sunday's field. Like Mears, McMurray also had a marquee win last season, capturing the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway in July.
Dario Franchitti, last year's Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion, is down in 38th, amid a challenging start to his first NASCAR season driving for Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates.
And veteran Kyle Petty is 40th, with his team an already-perilous 60 points behind Hornish's. Encouraging: In recent years, Petty has shown glimpses of his 1980s form at Martinsville; he finished 10th in the 2006 fall race. ... "I have a lot of experience at Martinsville and that should help us qualify our way in to Sunday's race," Petty said. "This is not an enviable position to be in, but I have a good team around me and we can dig our way out of this. ... I've been in this situation before and we've come out just fine. We're more than capable of hitting a streak where we get a string of top-10 or top-15 finishes. Martinsville would be a good place to start one."
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Bowyer Two Times Tough: Clint Bowyer (No. 07 BB&T Chevrolet) is following last year's spectacular season in fine fashion. A third-place finisher in the Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup, Bowyer is ninth in series points going into Martinsville. But he's also leading the points in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, after a runner-up finish at Nashville Superspeedway this past Saturday night. This marks the first time Bowyer has led the standings of a NASCAR national series.
Virginia Tech's Beamer Serving As Grand Marshal ... Frank Beamer, head football coach at Virginia Tech, will be the Grand Marshal for the Goody's Cool Orange 500. "I think most people know how much I love racing, and I'm delighted by this honor," Beamer said.
"This is a real privilege," added Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell.
Burton After Short-Track Sweep ... Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet), winner at Bristol Motor Speedway's half-mile two weeks ago, will try to pull off an early-season short-track sweep on Sunday. In 2005, an adjustment of the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule put Bristol and Martinsville back-to-back. Consecutive short-track races were once commonplace, but that had disappeared from the schedule in 1999. The last time a driver swept short-track events on consecutive weeks was Jeff Gordon, at Bristol and Martinsville, in 1997.
Burton -- fourth in series points this week -- has a solid record at Martinsville: In 27 starts, he has a victory, nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. According to Loop Data statistics, Burton has been the sport's seventh-best green-flag passer at Martinsville over the last six races there.
"Martinsville is both a physical and emotional race," Burton said. "I think it's the longest feeling race that we run all year and I like that challenge ... obviously some challenges are bigger than others. To me, that's what our sport is all about. It's about being difficult and trying to overcome obstacles and Martinsville is a pretty big obstacle to overcome."
NASCAR's 60th Anniversary Season Returns To One Of The Originals -- Martinsville
The year was 1948 and the fledgling sport was NASCAR. That was the first season, with a 52-race schedule for mostly Modified machines, although there were the relatively sparse appearance of cars that would come to define NASCAR -- the Strictly Stocks, precursor to today's NASCAR Sprint Cup cars.
That schedule came to Martinsville Speedway, with an event on July 4. The speedway had actually opened a year earlier, with only 750 seats.
For the first installment of what would become one of NASCAR's true traditions -- racing on or around the July 4 holiday -- Fonty Flock was the winner.
An ambitious gentleman by the name of Bill France, who also was NASCAR's founder and first president, finished eighth.
Up Next: Samsung 500 At Texas Motor Speedway
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series moves on to Texas Motor Speedway next week, for the Samsung 500, set for Sunday, April 6.
Jeff Burton is the race's defending champion. Jimmie Johnson won last year's fall race at TMS, as part of his late-season charge to the series championship.
Burton also won the very first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at TMS, in 1997, driving then for Roush Fenway Racing. He is the only repeat winner in series history at TMS, with 14 races having been held there.
Burton is coming off the 20th win of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career, at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 16. That win was the first this season for his current owner, Richard Childress, and the first for Chevrolet overall in 2008.
The Race: GOODY'S COOL ORANGE 500
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 30
The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)
The Track: .526-mile oval
The Distance: 500 laps/263 miles
TV: FOX, 1:30 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS Satellite Radio
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.; Final Practice, 12:50 -1:50 p.m.