Beth Lunkenheimer · Thursday March 29, 2012
Martinsville Speedway. Those two words are enough to make me grin, ear-to-ear, and that couldn’t be more true then at this point of the season with no Truck Series racing since Daytona. This month-long drought of no competition is one of the longest gaps in between races we’ve seen in the division’s short history.
So with race number two on the horizon, let’s set you up with a preview. For the past three spring visits to the 0.526-mile paperclip, it has been the Kevin Harvick and Johnny Sauter show. Harvick won, back-to-back in 2009 and 2010, but it was Johnny Sauter who crossed the line first last year.
Which driver has an edge for this Saturday? I think it’s about 50/50. But either way, both drivers are poised as favorites to defend their victories this weekend.
Kevin Harvick is no stranger to solid finishes at Martinsville Speedway. In 13 starts, he has finished outside the top 15 just twice — 1998 (25th – overheating) and 2002 (29th – parked) — including eight top-10 finishes. Of the two victories, Harvick’s performance in 2010 dwarfed that of his 2009 efforts. Starting on the pole, he wasted no time showing the field he had the Truck to beat, leading three times for 187 laps en route to his eighth career win.
Though his two victories looked great and ultimately are what counts at the end of the day, success on the track isn’t always measured in terms of wins. Perhaps Harvick’s most impressive run at Martinsville that didn’t result in a visit to Victory Lane was last Spring, when he produced a solid fourth-place finish. Sure, fourth isn’t that exciting for a guy that had won the last two April visits to the track, but it’s how he did it that makes a top-5 run stand out. Harvick got into an on-track scuffle, went two laps down repairing the damage and managed to use the Lucky Dog rule twice to get back on the lead lap. From there, the team bolted on a fresh set of tires and Harvick made quick work of the field as the laps wound down; who knows what would have happened with another 100 miles in the race?
Heading into 2012, there’s one thing that will be very different for Harvick this time around — he’ll be running for Richard Childress Racing instead of his own team. But as far as performance goes, expect there will be little change, if any, between his former KHI trucks and the RCR vehicles. Running as an employee, not an employer also means Harvick may approach this event with a different attitude. In years past, the 36-year-old always had the “owner mentality” in the back of his mind, and now all he’s got to worry about is being the driver. Wouldn’t you be more likely to take chances when you aren’t footing the bill for damages?
Of course, that doesn’t mean Harvick will just go out and run all over the field without regard to those around him. Absolutely not. He’s a smart driver and knows what it takes to not only be around at the finish but also be able to challenge for the victory. As a result, it would be unwise to ignore Harvick come Saturday afternoon.
Last year, the Kroger 250 turned into the Johnny Sauter Show with the driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet leading 71 laps, including the crucial last two after executing a near-perfect bump and run to clear Kyle Busch. Fast forward to October and Sauter finished a solid fourth at Martinsville, only his second top-10 finish at the track. All of a sudden, along with last year’s performance comes a renewed sense of strength.
“My roots are in short track racing, so this is always a track I enjoy racing at, and I look forward to it even more now that we’ve got a win there. Anytime you return to a track where you have a win or a pole, you go in with a certain amount of confidence because you know you’ve conquered it, that you can conquer it,” Sauter said in preparation for this week’s race. “We had two really great races in Martinsville last year and we’re bringing back the same truck, so we know we’re going in with something that works. Now the goal is to make it even better and bring home another grandfather clock trophy.”
Like Harvick, that’s just what Sauter and the No. 13 ThorSport Racing team may be able to do this weekend. Despite a rough beginning at Martinsville — a lone top-15 finish in his first six starts — it appears Sauter has a handle on what works there for him now. Add in the use of a proven truck and you’ve got the recipe for a strong run that could be capped off by another visit to Victory Lane.
There is one thing that could stand in Sauter’s way — a manufacturer change from Chevrolet to Toyota, always a rough transition for any organization. But like Harvick’s team change, the difference in speed will be minimal, if any. And if Daytona is any indication, the move to Toyota could actually serve as a confidence booster thanks to their impressive statistics in the Truck Series.
Both Harvick and Sauter have challenges that could stand in the way of their otherwise dominant performances in the last couple of years at Martinsville. But it’s nothing either driver can’t overcome. My money is still on the Cup guy who’s won two of the last three spring races at the Virginia track.
What if both guys wind up faltering? I doubt it, but don’t count out a first-time winner, either. Though the track has only produced two — Timothy Peters in 2009 and Denny Hamlin last Fall in his first career start — Martinsville is the kind of place that lends itself to a victory by any driver that manages to keep his fenders in place and is around when the checkered flag flies.
Previewing the Kroger 250
Author’s Note: New this season is a feature very similar to the Frontstretch Folio found in Friday’s edition of The Frontstretch Newsletter where I’ll preview the upcoming race weekend. Love it? Hate it? Wish something more were in it? Let me know in the comments below.
Track: Martinsville Speedway
Date: Saturday, March 31st
Length: 131.5 miles / 250 laps
Broadcast Information: 1:30 PM ET on SPEED
Weather Forecast: Scattered Thunderstorms (50%); High: 72; Low: 50
Johnny Sauter is the defending winner of the Kroger 250. Last April, he led 71 of 250 laps en route to his first of two victories in his runner-up points campaign.
Drivers and Crew Members on Racing at Martinsville
“We just need to stay out of trouble and not cause our own trouble. At a place like Martinsville, everyone is going to make some mistakes; we just don’t want to do anything that will cost us a good finish. Qualifying is going to be important, although you can drive to the front. There are guys that have done it, but you’re just fighting all the time. We would like to get a good starting spot and try to stay out of that traffic deep in the field.” Ross Chastain
“It’s important to not make any mistakes at short tracks like Martinsville because everyone is fighting for the bottom and you can easily get freight-trained on restarts or if you get stuck in the high line. Even though we had a good test at Sandusky and I’ve raced at other short tracks, there’s no other track that we run on that’s quite like Martinsville so I’m excited to get there.” Dakoda Armstrong
“I love Martinsville, and I love short track racing. I grew up short track racing, as most of us did. I’ve excited about the progress we saw with John Wes (Townley) at ‘Little Rock’ testing last week, and we’re looking forward to really getting our season started off. At Martinsville, it’s crucial to stay out of trouble and keep all the fenders on our Toyota Tundra. That’s what we’re planning to do to secure a solid finish.” Chris Rice, Crew Chief for John Wes Townley
“Martinsville Speedway has been one of the tracks I have had circled on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule. Every time we go there, we seem to improve and last Fall, I felt like we had a Truck that was capable of competing for the win. We just need to be patient and be around at the end.” James Buescher
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