Brickyard Winners Need Strong Martinsville Finishes To Stay In Chase Hunt
Saturday, October 29, 2011
After the first seven races of NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship” have been contested on tracks at least 1 mile in length – including last Sunday’s trip to the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway – Round 7 is at the shortest track on the NASCAR schedule.
It’s off to the .542-mile Martinsville Speedway for the only short track race out of the 10 that make up NASCAR’s Chase, and three of the four former Brickyard 400 winners are hoping to achieve success at the flat, paperclip-shaped oval.
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon is the active career victory leader at Martinsville with seven wins, 24 top-five and 30 top-10 finishes in 37 starts. Teammate Jimmie Johnson, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner, follows with six Martinsville wins to go along with 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 19 starts. Two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart has two Martinsville wins, eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 25 starts. And 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick is the most recent Martinsville winner when he defeated Dale Earnhardt Jr. on April 3. That is Harvick’s only win, one of two top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 20 Martinsville starts.
But for these four drivers, a victory would take on added significance because with just four races left in the Chase, a trio of non-Brickyard 400 winners has the first three positions in the standings.
Carl Edwards enters Sunday’s 500-lap battle with a 14-point lead over Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Edwards has never won a Cup race at Martinsville and has just one top-five and four top-10 finishes in 14 starts. Kenseth is another driver that is winless at Martinsville with two top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 23 starts. Brad Keselowski has one top-10 finish in three starts, and that came in this race last October. Keselowski is 18 points behind leader Edwards.
As for the quartet of Brickyard 400 winners in the Chase, Stewart is fourth 19 points out of the lead. Harvick is fifth, 26 behind the leader, and Johnson has been knocked all the way back to seventh, 50 points out of the lead. Johnson's shot at a record-extending sixth Cup championship is in serious jeopardy.
Gordon is 10th in the standings, 82 out of the lead and essentially out of serious contention for the championship.
Rain washed out Friday’s practice session at Martinsville, but the Cup competitors had a chance to discuss their chances as the Chase enters the stretch run.
“Obviously, in your mind you want to make the deficit smaller and you need to capitalize at the places where you feel like you can capitalize,” Harvick said. “We feel like we need to capitalize here and we need to capitalize in Phoenix to make up some ground; and obviously their mile-and-a-half stuff has been pretty good and ours has been fair. So you just want to make it smaller. You want to make that deficit smaller as you leave here. So if we can do that, I’d say it would be a good weekend. I don’t think there’s any real points total in your head; it just needs to be smaller than what it is.”
At NASCAR’s shortest track of the season, Harvick believes it is very difficult to get an edge, which makes qualifications so important on a track where drivers have to get physical in order to get by another competitor.
“It’s just one of those places where it takes such little increments of getting better that you can’t just go out there and change it all at once,” Harvick said. “It’s like you learn a little piece here and a little piece there and luckily for me, I’ve had teammates that have run well here so we’ve adapted a lot of the setup stuff. You go back and you look at tape, and you just try to figure out exactly what they’re doing with the same stuff to get better. I think that was just a progression over time.
Stewart believes an important area for a team to focus on at Martinsville is shock absorber technology.
“The shock technology (has changed over the years as it relates to racing at Martinsville), and it’s like anywhere else we go where you’re still trying to get the cars to do the same thing,” Stewart said. “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.
“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 (Martinsville) is 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.”
But Stewart’s last three visits have seen poor finishes of 26th in April 2010, 24th in this contest last year and 34th on April 3. That has puzzled the 2005 and 2007 winner of the Brickyard 400.
“It’s been everything for us,” Stewart said. “If you get a good-handling car, your brakes aren’t really an issue anymore there. We’ve fought handling the last couple of times there, and it does make it harder because you’re trying to make up more time in the braking zones. It’s just getting your car to do what you want it to do, just like anywhere else, but if it’s not right, it does bring that brake element back into it.
“We’re going to Martinsville this weekend with Ryan’s (Newman, teammate) package that he’s been running really well with. We’ve kind of struggled there, so we’re going to start with Ryan’s setup and work our way from there. We know it’s going to be a little different for me and my driving style. Mine and Ryan’s driving styles are a little bit different, but I feel that’s a good place to start for the weekend."
Johnson is hoping a victory at Martinsville can thrust him back into serious championship contention. But he also realizes he’s going to need a little help for that to happen.
“With six guys in front of me in the points and I’d say more than half of them look forward to coming to this racetrack, my real opportunity was last week (Talladega) and our 26th-place finish didn’t help me out any,” Johnson said Friday. “So, we’re at a point now, with six guys ahead of me, that window of opportunity is smaller. It’s a lot smaller. It’s one thing if there were one or two guys ahead of me, my odds would improve at that point. But it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen, and I’ve just got to go out and try to lead as many laps as I can, win as often as I can, and see where everyone else’s luck goes. This, probably in a year, has been more volatile than we’ve ever seen. So if that volatility stays in play, I’ve got a shot. If Carl (Edwards) runs top five from here on in, then I’ve got no chance.”
Johnson vowed that he’s going to keep digging until there is nothing left to dig.
“As long as we are still mathematically in it, I’m not going to give up hope,” Johnson said. “I just never been one to lay down on something or to quit and not try, we have four races left on the schedule, stuff can happen. That window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller, especially with these last two weeks, but it is not over until it is over. In racing, a lot of weird things happen, and we will just see. If that door or window closes on winning the championship, again I want to finish as high as I possibly can in the points for my team, and for my sponsors. I have been able to be in the top-five in points since I started at the Cup level. I would love to keep that stat alive; so there is still a ton to race for, including a championship."
Although Gordon likely doesn’t have time to make up the huge distance from 10th in the standings to the lead, a return to Martinsville gives the winner of the first Brickyard 400 reason to believe he can make up some ground with a victory on Sunday.
“I always enjoy coming here to Martinsville, and certainly this weekend is no different,” Gordon said. “It’s a fun track. It’s one of those tracks on the circuit that very few things have changed over the years, or minimal compared to a lot of the bigger tracks with aerodynamics and with the engineering how it affected those tracks. This is the one that has the least amount of affects, so all those years of experience and laps around here still continue to pay off.
“I’m just here thinking about Martinsville and what it’s going to take to win, and we are here to win. You can’t just say, 'Oh, that guy is racing for the championship; I can’t pass him. That’s not the case. I think we all have to understand the situation.”
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