A Martinsville Elitist
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (March 30, 2011) – Tony Stewart is part of an elite group. Believe it or not, it’s not because of his two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships. Or 39 career Sprint Cup wins. Or 1997 IZOD IndyCar Series title. Or four USAC championships. No, it’s because he’s one of just four active drivers who have won at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway since 2003, a span of 16 races.
Stewart scored the second of his two career Sprint Cup wins at Martinsville on April 2, 2006. It was a rare sight, for since 2003, the only other active Sprint Cup drivers to visit Martinsville’s victory lane have been Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. (Rusty Wallace, now retired and a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, scored his last Sprint Cup win at Martinsville on April 18, 2004.)
Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, turned Martinsville into Gordonville by sweeping the track’s two Sprint Cup races in 2003 and again in 2005. That run helped burnish Gordon’s legacy at the .526-mile oval, for he logged three previous Martinsville wins back in the late ‘90s.
Gordon’s domination, however, gave way to that of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Johnson, now the five-time and reigning series champion, gave a glimpse of his future stranglehold on the paperclip-shaped track when he won on Oct. 24, 2004. Since then, Johnson has scored five more Martinsville wins, including three straight from October 2006 through October 2007, and then back-to-back triumphs in October 2008 and March 2009.
But just as Johnson usurped Gordon’s dominance at Martinsville, another young hotshot is doing the same, making sure Johnsonville is known only for sausage.
Virginia native Denny Hamlin is the current King of Martinsville. He broke Johnson’s win streak when he took home one of Martinsville’s prized grandfather clocks after winning the March 2008 Sprint Cup race. And just as Johnson three-peated at Martinsville, Hamlin has done the same, winning the 2009 October race, the 2010 March race and the 2010 October race. Another Hamlin victory in Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 would surprise no one.
That being said, Stewart knows what it’s like to have the upper hand at Martinsville. In addition to his two wins, he has three poles and holds the track qualifying record of 19.306 seconds at 98.083 mph, set in October 2005. He also has six top-threes, eight top-fives, 13 top-10s and has led a total of 1,194 laps in 24 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. Stewart’s laps led tally ranks him third among active drivers, behind only Gordon (2,944) and Johnson (1,551).
The driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing is now a 13-year Sprint Cup veteran, and after logging 11,517 racing laps at Martinsville, Stewart knows a thing or two about the subtleties of the track’s tight and fast layout.
Come Sunday, expect to see the usual suspects up front, and expect Stewart – the last guy not named Johnson or Hamlin to win at Martinsville – to be one of them.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve had success at Martinsville and a period where you were always a threat to win. What’s that like?
“It’s knowing that feel, it’s finding that combination that works, and the next time you come back to that track you know what that feel is like and you know what you’re looking for in practice for it to be good in the race. During the race, the track changes quite a bit, but you know when you kind of have that rhythm. You have the timing of what it was like, you just know what that feel is in the car that you’re looking for, not necessarily to be good in Happy Hour as much as to be good for the race. When you’ve had a good weekend, the next time you go back it’s just easier to try to go back and mimic that feel. That’s why when guys hit on something they’re normally good for a while until the package changes quite a bit, and then once that changes, you have to learn a different feel. Normally for a while you can have that, and different guys, if you look over the history, have kind of had runs at it. It seems like whether it’s a three or four or five-race period, guys get that feel of it and know what that tire likes, what the chassis combination likes at that time, and they kind of have that and they know how to adapt to it.”
What’s changed over the years as it relates to racing at Martinsville?
“The shock technology, and it’s like anywhere else we go where you’re still trying to get the cars to do the same thing. You still have to make them rotate, and more so at Martinsville than anywhere else, you’re asking the car to accelerate a lot off the corner. That’s the hardest thing. You can always get it to do one or the other, but it’s hard to get them to do both. I think that’s why Martinsville is so difficult. But there are things that drivers figure out that they like, and the feel that they like, and when you find that you normally have something to shoot for each time you go on the racetrack. But the technology does change with it, I believe.”
Are you surprised by how Hamlin and Johnson have been able to dominate at Martinsville?
“No, because once those guys know the feel that they want, and then know the feel they have to have at the end of Happy Hour to be good for the race, they’re all set. I think that’s a big factor. We had a run there where we didn’t win a lot of races, but we were very consistent and ran a lot of top-threes and top-fives and I knew exactly how I had to have my balance at the end of the session to be good for the race.”
What do you like about racing at Martinsville?
“It’s still that old short track feel. That’s what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year and it’s the only place that races like this. We’ve got two half-mile tracks that we race on. This one’s quite a bit different than Bristol, and that’s what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It’s racing the way we all grew up racing.”
Short tracks seem to suit you well. Would you like to see more short tracks added to the schedule?
“Well, they haven’t built any new ones yet. Everybody that wants to build a mile-and-a-half track are the ones we look at and wonder why they’re doing that, especially when Martinsville is as good a race as it is and Richmond and Bristol are as good as they are. You have three of the best tracks on the circuit, but everybody wants to build a mile-and-a-half track and put grandstands down the front of it and not put as many seats as you can around places like Martinsville, Richmond or Bristol. You can get just as many people around a smaller track and have more room to park them and everything else. I’m all for it. I’m sick of seeing guys build mile-and-a-half tri-ovals. Be creative, be unique. Build something that is your own. Don’t copy somebody else’s track.”
DARIAN GRUBB, Crew Chief of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for Stewart-Haas Racing:
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.”
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.”