The Frontstretch: Race Trax: DirecTV 500 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday March 30, 2006

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Race Trax: DirecTV 500

Amy Henderson · Thursday March 30, 2006


On Track
The DirecTV 500 is the sixth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. The Cup Series will visit the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway twice in 2006; they’ll return to run in the Chase for the Nextel Cup in October. Martinsville has hosted the Nextel Cup Series every year since 1949. The track is a flat true oval track with 12 degrees of banking in the very tight corners, and completely flat on the two 800-foot straightaways. Drivers will race 500 laps for the checkered flag. The field will include 2005 polesitter Scott Riggs and race winner Jeff Gordon.

49 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. Beginning this weekend, 2006 owner points will determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Martinsville is 98.083 mph, set by Tony Stewart in the fall of 2005.

The 2006 Nextel Cup Series points race is still taking shape. Matt Kenseth took over the top spot last week after his third-place finish at Bristol. Kasey Kahne also bumped up a spot to second, just eight points out of the lead. Jimmie Johnson dropped to third following a cut tire and smack of the wall at Bristol, and trails Kenseth by 19 points. This week’s Top 5 is completed by Mark Martin and Kyle Busch.

What To Expect
NASCAR put the shortest tracks on the schedule back to back again this year, and tempers can flare on short tracks like no place else. No matter how often they’re warned in drivers’ meetings, someone will spin someone, causing that spun someone to take exception. The difference is, at Martinsville where the speeds are lower (even qualifying speeds have yet to break 100 mph), cars beat and spin but are often able to continue. Whether this also allows them to carry a grudge that much further is debatable. But, just like Bristol, if a driver holds up the competition for too long, he’ll find himself quickly moved. We’re not saying that Bristol’s grudges will be brought along this week…but don’t count that out.

Martinsville’s also got a unique surface: it’s the only track on the circuit to be paved with both asphalt (on the straightaways) and concrete (in the racing groove through the corners). Its shape has been compared to a giant-sized paper clip, and it’s hard to navigate. Add a narrow groove and curbs on the inside of the corners – although they are not as steep as they once were – and you have a difficult track to navigate. There is no place to go during a crash sometimes except to simply stop. Brakes get as hot as tempers, even on occasion melting the bead on someone’s tire, and taking care of the brakes is the key equipment issue for teams.

Who to Watch
Martinsville is another place where so many strange things can happen that it’s hard to choose, but Jimmie Johnson has very quietly put together a string of seven consecutive Top 10 finishes at Martinsville. Although Johnson has only won here once, he runs consistently well, and his patience and smooth style is well suited to this track. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon felt that he was booted out of a Top 5 at Bristol, is looking for redemption, and Gordon already has six grandfather clocks (Martinsville gives these to winners in place of the traditional trophy).

Matt Kenseth has been so consistent this year that it’s impossible to count him out anywhere, and Bristol bump-and-run champ Kurt Busch has a win and momentum on his side. Tony Stewart is an outstanding short tracker, and veteran Ken Schrader is due to give the Wood brothers a top finish.

This may be a tough week for the rookie class. The Busch Series hasn’t raced at Martinsville since 1996, so it’s a new animal for many of them. Still, Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley have looked fairly comfortable everywhere, so they may be a surprise this week.

Did You Know:

  • That Martinsville is the oldest track still on the Cup schedule? 2006 will be the track’s 57th year on the circuit.

  • That the speedway was the first to have an air-conditioned press box? It was later the first track to have an air-conditioned scorers’ stand.
  • That Martinsville might be almost as famous for its hot dogs as for its racing? The dogs are hot pink in color and come on a bun smothered in chili and cole slaw. Teams and fans alike choose them for their race weekend fare, and got so upset when they were changed that they demanded- and got – the original back.

You Don’t Say"¦
"Martinsville is one of those tracks where you can be good all day long and have something go wrong at the end. You have to make the car roll through the tight corners, and keeping the brakes on the car the entire race is very important. Avoiding wrecks is another key to a successful day at Martinsville. It’s a short-track, and things happen in a hurry." *Kevin Harvick* on racing at Martinsville

"You would think running at Bristol last weekend would help for Martinsville, but the tracks and the approach are totally different. You use so much brake at Martinsville, and you don’t have to do that at Bristol. Fortunately, the brakes we use now are so good, it is tough to wear them out, but as a driver, you are always a little cautious about them." *Casey Mears* on the difference between NASCAR’s shortest racetracks

"I remember getting out of my car last year and wondering how the hell a car as smashed up as ours could actually pass people out there, but then I looked at everybody else’s cars and found my answer. This track is really a cool little place to race. I mean, there is stuff happening every lap. You beat and bang for 500 laps, and that’s fun if you got the temperament to handle it. Some do, some don’t." *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.* on Martinsville

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