The Frontstretch: Race Trax: Subway 500 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday October 19, 2006

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Race Trax: Subway 500

Amy Henderson · Thursday October 19, 2006

 

On Track
The Subway 500 is the thirty-second race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. The Cup Series visits the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway twice in 2006. Martinsville has hosted the Nextel Cup Series since 1949. The track's first Cup winner was Red Byron. 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 Tony Stewart and race winner Jeff Gordon.

50 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner's points determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes for the remainder of the season. 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.

To the Point
Jeff Burton has been strong everywhere during this Chase, and last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway was no exception as Burton finished third, losing points only to race winner Kasey Kahne and runner-up Jimmie Johnson. Ultra-consistent Matt Kenseth moved back into second place, 45 points back, following a strong night and Mark Martin's hard late-race crash. Kevin Harvick also moved around Martin to take over third spot, 89 points behind Burton. Martin slipped all the way to fourth, 102 out of the lead, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved up a spot to fifth. Denny Hamlin's early wreck ended his chances for a top finish at Lowe's and cost him one spot as he slipped to sixth in the standing. The bad luck fairy finally got off Jimmie Johnson's shoulder, and Johnson moves up to seventh this week. Kasey Kahne climbed to eighth with his win, while Kyle Busch was able to climb out of the basement, taking over ninth and handing tenth spot over to Jeff Gordon, whose blown engine ended his LMS night prematurely.

What To Expect
Tempers can flare on short tracks like no place else. No matter how often they're warned in drivers' meeting, someone will spin someone, causing the 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 drivers to carry a grudge that much further is debatable. But if a driver holds up the competition for too long, he'll find himself quickly moved.

Martinsville boasts 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 get around. 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. Overheat those brakes and the day is done. A crash may not end a team's day, but it will seriously curb their chances for the day. And at a short track like Martinsville, there will be spins and crashes in between some green flag runs. So while it's certainly possible that this week's race will be decided by fuel mileage and long green flag runs (stranger things have happened), don't bank on it.

Who to Watch
If you're following the Chase, don't count Jeff Gordon out of it before this race. Gordon is the best of the Chasers at Martinsville. Gordon's seven wins and five poles lead all active drivers, and he has the top average finish (7.6) of all the Chasers at the track. Gordon swept the season last year. He has never had a DNF at Martinsville-and has only finished outside the top ten six times in 27 races. Second best in terms of average finish is Gordon's teammate, Jimmie Johnson (7.8). Johnson's worst finish in the last four races at Martinsville is eighth, and he has a win in that stretch. Other Chasers to keep an eye on are Mark Martin and Jeff Burton-either one could take the checkered flag.

Of course, there will be 33 other drivers duking it out on Sunday, and one non-Chaser who will have something to say before the race is over is Tony Stewart. Stewart won the spring race and would love nothing more than to steal the Chasers' thunder on Sunday. Kurt Busch and Bobby Labonte are two other Martinsville winners looking for a good finish.

Did You Know:

  • While Jeff Gordon has never posted a DNF at Martinsville, J.D. McDuffie failed to finish 22 times? That's the M-ville record.

  • That Fred Lorenzen once led 493 of 500 laps en route to a Martinsville win? He did it in 1964-and that race did not tie the record of just three lead changes (fewest at the track) last tied in 1961.
  • Cale Yarborough led 3,851 laps at Martinsville? That's more than any other driver.

You Don't Say…
"Patience, lots of patience. That's the key to finishing a race at Martinsville." driver Elliott Sadler on the key to winning at Martinsville

"It’s pretty much no secret that I don’t care much for racing at Martinsville, but that seems to have little to do with success, as they keep reminding me that I have a pretty good record there. I love Pocono and have never won there, so I guess it doesn’t matter that much if you love a track or not." driver Mark Martin on Martinsville (where he has two wins and an average finish of 13th)

"Brakes! Just getting the brakes to work all day. You can really wear ‘em out at Martinsville, so the key is trying to save them throughout the race and saving your equipment for the end. It’s a tough little ol’ track, because you can never get away from anybody. There’s always someone to race, whether it’s a lap-down car or for position. We need to qualify a little better than we did last time so we don’t get caught up in some crashes. I think the last three times we’ve been there, the best we’ve started was 20th. But we’re taking a good car. It’s the one we finished fourth with at Martinsville last time, so we should be able to race like hell and give ‘em a show!" driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his biggest concern at Martinsville

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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Contact Amy Henderson

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