The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Monday October 22, 2012
After the caution flag craziness of the freshly repaved Kansas Speedway and the previous week’s somnolent procession at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it sure will be good to get back to Martinsville Speedway this Sunday afternoon for some old school racing. Now, in the interests of full disclosure, and put as simply as possible, I love Martinsville. For me, it’s one of the best, if not the best, track on the current schedule. So if you’re looking for an article full of doom and gloom, dire predictions and proclamations as to the worrying state of NASCAR’s future, I suggest you click away now because this column is going to accentuate the positive.
Why? Simple: I absolutely love Martinsville.
Remarkably, this weekend’s race will mark the 128th time the Sprint Cup circus has taken the drop of the green flag at the paper clip-shaped, 0.526-mile track. The first race, held in the inaugural season of 1949 was the sixth of eight events run that first season. The winner was, appropriately, a true legend of the sport, Red Byron, who led the last 97 of the 200 scheduled laps. That was Byron’s second race win of the year and it was a huge contributing factor to his capturing NASCAR’s first official championship. Since then, there hasn’t been a Cup champion who hasn’t competed at least one time at Martinsville — that’s the sort of history and tradition you just can’t buy.
Since Byron’s maiden victory, the winners at Martinsville have made up a veritable Who’s Who of our great sport. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the King leads the way; Petty won a record 15 times at the short track. Not far behind is Darrell Waltrip, who won 11 times during a career that saw him collect a whopping 47 of 84 career victories on these types of half-mile ovals. Other multiple winners include Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon (both have seven wins), Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson (all six wins), three-time winners Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd, and Lee Petty while Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson both won twice. Others, such as Fireball Roberts, David Pearson, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd all picked up a win. It’s an impressive list of some of the true greats of our sport, most of whom are almost certain Hall of Famers as NASCAR slowly expands that roster inside its new honorary building in Charlotte.
Not all of those former Cup winners, however, won one of the most famous trophies in the sport. H. Clay Earles, the founder of Martinsville, came up with the concept of awarding a Ridgeway Grandfather Clock to who took the checkers first at his races some 44 years ago. The most recent Ridgeway Grandfather Clock — produced by a local furniture manufacturer — plays “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” as well as the traditional Westminster chime. It is a genuinely unique and beautiful trophy worth over $11,000 — that’s more than many of the finishers in the average Camping World Truck Series race take home.
The first clock was awarded to Fred Lorenzen, who won the 1964 Old Dominion 500, and the tradition has continued ever since. Richard Petty actually won the title that same afternoon.
“We clinched the championship that day, but I was disappointed when I realized they were giving Freddy that clock. It’s alright, though,” said Petty. “We got us a couple of ‘em around the house now.”
Virginia native Denny Hamlin, owner of four such clocks described his joy at finally winning one. “I came close a couple of times but didn’t get one,” he explained. “Then we went there in ’07 and I nearly won the Cup race. Finally, when we won there last spring  I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to hug it when they wheeled it into Victory Lane.”
Of course, the question is what do the folks with multiple victories do with all those clocks? It sure must get busy at the top of each hour.
Trophies aside, one of the best aspects of a race at Martinsville is that it rarely disappoints. A typical race tends to be one of the best of the season, one in which the victory is often decided on the final lap with enough action in between to keep fans endlessly entertained for three-plus hours. I’ve said it many times before, I’m sure I’ll say it plenty again, but there are few problems in NASCAR that can’t be solved with a trip to the venerable old Martinsville. Why? It’s the smallest and slowest track on the circuit, the perfect blend of short-track action where you can run side-by-side, slam sheet metal together and leave no one the worse for wear. To all those critics who claim NASCAR is just a bombastic, mindless mash the gas and turn left kind of sport; I’d refer them to a race at Martinsville. Try navigating the treacherous flat turns a thousand times in a race, treacherous wear-and-tear on equipment and then tell me that NASCAR is easy. It is no surprise, either then that eight of the top ten drivers on the all-time NASCAR wins list have three or more victories at Martinsville; the best wheelmen win repeatedly at the places that are hardest to win at.
Moving forward, one of the biggest challenges that Martinsville faces is retention of both of its current Cup races. Rumors have swirled for awhile that the “l’il ole paper clip” is next up to lose a second date. It’s my fervent hope that they stay just rumors. Taking a date from Martinsville and giving it to some generic cookie cutter would be madness of maximum proportions, worse even than the decision to take the Labor Day race away from Darlington. Thankfully, we’re all set in 2013 with the release of the schedule already, but the small size of the facility (just 65,000 or so people can pack the stands, as opposed to double that capacity at places like Dover and Bristol) could make it expendable in future years.
For now, though Track President Clay Campbell couldn’t have been happier. “We’ve got our traditional dates back again and we’re very pleased with that,” he explained. “The first weekend in April and the last weekend in October have worked very well for us. Everyone is just getting excited about the season in early April and in the fall, we’re at a crucial point in The Chase.”
So long may the grand old tradition of racing at Martinsville continue; it’s a vital link to the past and, judging by the quality of the racing we see almost every time out, it’s a sign that the future can indeed be bright. We just need to lop a mile or so off each of the cookie cutter tracks and we’ll be absolutely fine.
And finally this week, a quick shout out to Matt Kenseth on his second Chase victory. He may be a lame duck in the only car and team he’s known in his 15-year, 24-win, 468-race career but he’s redefining how to leave an organization with grace and style. For me, he’s an early favorite to win it all in 2013, ten years after his first and so far only Cup title.
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