The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions In Martinsville: HMS Dominance And Chasing Track Position by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday April 5, 2013

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Nestled in the mountainous rural pastures of Southern Virginia sits a NASCAR track that is something of a comparative rarity in the wider world of the sport of high-level competitive stock car auto racing. That track is known as Martinsville Speedway, and it is the site of this week’s round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Built in 1947 by racing pioneer H. Clay Earles, this half mile paperclip shaped facility is a constant reminder of the days of yore in NASCAR racing, a time when drivers raced for purses worth less than $3800 USD and would subsequently drive home in the very cars they raced on track. Martinsville is one of the last vestiges of NASCAR’s past, and as such, it is a coveted race for any driver in the field who gives a lick about the sport’s history. Many storylines are at-hand as we head into this week’s edition of the NASCAR circus, ranging from the Denny Hamlin saga to the question of whether Hendrick Motorsports will once again assert their dominance on the famed Southern Virginia paperclip. So grab a Martinsville Hot Dog, settle in, and let me help you gear up for what is sure to be another wild weekend in the world of NASCAR.

1. Will Hendrick Motorsports run the table once again? And with what driver?

There are only a few tracks the series visits over the course of a season that you can pinpoint with certainty as tracks that a certain driver/team will assuredly excel at. Martinsville and Hendrick Motorsports (specifically Jimmie Johnson) are a rather famous example of this. In 2012, Hendrick Motorsports drivers led 74% of the laps run across the two races at Martinsville, and HMS driver Jimmie Johnson collected a victory in the Fall event. Since 2005, Hendrick Motorsports has won 8 out of the 16 Sprint Cup races held at the track. The only driver who has even come close to matching Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers performance at Martinsville in that timeframe is Denny Hamlin, and he won’t be racing this weekend. So, barring some completely unseen circumstances, this weekend’s race will almost undoubtedly be an HMS beatdown.

Jimmie Johnson is the Hendrick driver most likely to succeed at Martinsville but don’t count out the points leader. Earnhardt, Jr. has maybe his best chance of a victory this weekend.

The question that remains is, which of the four HMS heavyweights will lead the charge? Recent history suggests that Jimmie Johnson, the winningest driver at the track since 2002, would be the one carrying the banner for the team this weekend. There is a large chance that this will be the case, but there is another driver in the HMS stable that could perhaps shine even brighter this weekend. His name is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Jr. has the 4th best average finish (8.25) among active drivers at Martinsville, and perhaps has more momentum than any other driver in the garage heading into this weekend, and momentum counts for far more than most give it credit for. Statistically, this is Junior’s best track, and as such it stands to reason that he will be extra motivated to get the job done knowing this could be his best chance to grab a win over the next 10 races. The #88 team is firing on all cylinders right now, and this could very well be the race that they seal the deal for a victory.
Many will be closely focusing on Jimmie Johnson given his recent Martinsville success, but it could very well be Ol’ Junebug who steals the show in the end. Either way, expect an HMS driver to be taking home the Grandfather clock when it’s all said and done.

2. Will rivalries boileth over this weekend?

Rivalries once again appear to be en vogue in the world of NASCAR. Between the Jeff Gordon/Clint Bowyer soap opera of 2012 (which ironically began this very race weekend last year), to the Hamlin/Logano/Stewart mess of 2013, rivalries are very much a part of the sport’s fabric this season. And guess what? If you are pissed off at a driver, there is no better place on the circuit to showcase your displeasure with him/her than at Martinsville Speedway. With low corner speeds and little risk of attaining damage from giving an opponent a swipe, Martinsville is the easiest and safest place to issue redemption, and there’s no telling what kind of fireworks we might see.

The funny part about these short tracks in relation to the rivalries is that the rivalry that everyone expects to erupt going into that weekend’s race is sometimes not the one that ends up erupting. Instead, two (or three?) new combatants will often upstage the “old” rivalry that everyone was obsessing about the week prior. For example, look at the race at Bristol a few weeks ago. The big discussion before the race that week was whether or not Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer (who still to this very day are not big fans of one another) would brush fenders and let sparks fly. Those two never ended up feuding. It was instead Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin who came to blows.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Everyone and their mother is expecting Tony Stewart to mess with the aforementioned Logano this Sunday after their tussle in Fontana two weeks ago, but I wouldn’t count on that happening. So much publicity and attention has already been put on that story that I highly doubt Stewart would actually do something to draw more attention to it, no matter how upset he may have been two weeks ago. Deep down, he knows that’s the last thing he needs given the poor start to the season he is having. Stewart, like most drivers, is the type who would likely prefer to wait until the spotlight dies down a bit before he makes his ultimate payback (if he makes any at all).

If anything in the realm of payback happens this weekend, it will likely be from two guys we didn’t really know were feuding. It’s that rivalry that is simmering under the surface of public knowledge that is the most likely to erupt on track. That’s how both Gordon v. Bowyer and Logano v. Hamlin/Stewart started, and it’s likely how the next rivalry will start as well.

3. Will tires continue to be an issue in Martinsville?

Tires have been a hot-button issue in NASCAR so far in 2013. The first two short track races of the season (Phoenix and Bristol) featured some vicious tire blowouts that led to hard crashes. As such, Goodyear was the subject of serious criticism for weeks, as everyone from drivers to fans blasted the company for making tires that are not suitable for NASCAR’s new Gen-6 cars.

There is growing fear amongst many in the NASCAR community that such tire woes could continue once again this weekend in Martinsville. The main reason tires were blowing in Bristol and Phoenix was because teams were running the tires in such a way in terms of camber that the beads would melt, leading to tire failures such as the one in Phoenix that landed Danica Patrick’s wrecked race car on FOX News. These issues were heavily exacerbated by the heavy braking that is necessary for tracks such as Phoenix and Bristol, and with the Cup Series visiting a track this weekend that requires more braking than any other (Martinsville), it is clear why such concerns are justified.

Will Goodyear bring a suitable tire to the track? Will the teams set their cars up so they remain within the limits of the tires capabilities? Those are two burning questions that will be on the minds of everyone this weekend, especially Goodyear, as another rash of tire failures will put the tire manufacturer in even hotter water than it is in right now. Goodyear claims that the tires it is bringing to the track this weekend are brand new and designed for the Gen-6 car. One can only hope these new tires are adequate for a change, but until Goodyear can start consistently bringing quality tires to the track, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

4. How will the chase for track position affect the race?

One of the hallmarks of racing at Martinsville over the past few seasons has been the importance of track position late in the race. Track position is something we talk about often at cookie cutter tracks because of how aero issues make passing deep in traffic very difficult. Aero is not a problem at Martinsville. At Martinsville, track position is important for different reasons. Martinsville is a one-groove racetrack that has very little real-estate available for attempting and completing passes. In other words, passing is very difficult here simply because of how small and narrow the track is. In order to pass, you need a car that has excellent forward bite off the corners so that you can get enough of a run on a competitor to stick your nose underneath him in the next turn. Unfortunately for most teams/drivers, usually only a few cars in the field have enough forward bite to pass with the kind of ease and frequency that is necessary to quickly get to the front. With this in mind, teams will resort to other methods to gain track position when the opportunity arises.

The most popular method of getting to the front of the pack thus is not via on-track speed, it is through pit strategy. With multiple cautions often occurring within close temporal proximity to one another, teams that pitted on an earlier caution might not pit on the subsequent caution, thus getting off-sequence. This will jumble up the field such that slower cars get to the front, which leads to reckless driving by faster cars, which leads to even more cautions, which leads to more pit strategy. It’s a vicious cycle that will make the heads of most crew chiefs spin.

At the end of the day, this rush for track position will almost certainly be the defining characteristic of Sunday’s race. The crew chief who can make the best pit calls at the right time will be the one who’s team ends up in victory lane, and the ones who make bad pit calls risk their driver getting caught up in late race wrecks. As such, track position will not just be important on Sunday, it will mean the difference between a win and finishing outside the Top 20.

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