NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Besides The Rising Tide – NASCAR Martinsville: Hey, You, Get Off My Cloud… Err, Lawn

At the risk of repeating myself, there’s nothing so wrong with the new NASCAR that an old racetrack can’t fix it.

Over the last 70 years, Martinsville has earned its reputation as consistently one of the finest on the circuit. If we are to take into account the “Matt Factor” for determining a good race, (never a gap of more than two second between the leader and no more than 10 seconds between the leader and the driver in 10th) Sunday’s Martinsville race was a very good one.

At no point were either criteria exceeded much less both. That’s about par for the course at Martinsville. The combined margin of victory for the last 10 Cup races there is 6.547 seconds. You have to go back to 2010 to find a Cup race at this track with a gap of more than two seconds between the winner and runner-up finisher. For comparison’s sake, Martin Truex Jr.’s margin of victory last year at Fontana was 11.685 seconds.

Some folks have voiced dissatisfaction with Sunday’s race saying that Brad Keselowski stunk up the show leading 446 laps. While the No. 2 car did lead the majority of the race, at no point did he run away from the rest of the pack. He was normally between a quarter and a half second ahead of the driver in second, a narrow enough gap that one slip up, just getting too hard into a single corner could have easily cost him the lead.

It wasn’t like Keselowski needed binoculars rather than a rearview mirror to see who was closing in on him. Late in the event, Chase Elliott had to play defense rather than offense to keep Kyle Busch behind him. Given how slim the pickings have been for top five finishes by drivers wheeling Chevys this season, I can’t blame him.

Once Busch started to fade, Elliott began trying different lines and several times was able to close the gap noticeably there at the end. Given two or three laps, I think we might have seen a different winner. Or perhaps we’d have seen the No. 9 and No. 2 wreck, handing another win to Busch. You never can tell.

If you’re heading to a race at Martinsville, you’ll likely find yourself (stuck in hopeless traffic) on Route 58. Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine might be a better means of travel. The track is actually in Ridgeway, Virginia. But Martinsville itself is “just a piece” (to use a local euphemism) down the road. Just follow about everyone else on race weekends.

If you’ve never been there, Martinsville is nestled in south-central Virginia and is actually closer to Charlotte than Richmond. It’s also about an hour, almost two north of High Point, North Carolina, just on the other side of the state line. Why’s that important? Oh, I don’t know. There’s a fellow from High Point who has won 15 Cup races at Martinsville as opposed to another fellow who has been in the news lately who has won just two Cup races at the track but hails from clear across the other side of the country; Granola Country where all the fruits, nuts and flakes reside.

Among other multi-time Martinsville winners you’ll find Darrell Waltrip (11 Martinsville Cup victories) Jeff Gordon (9) Jimmie Johnson (9) Rusty Wallace (7), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (6) Cale Yarborough (6) Lee Petty (3) and Tony Stewart (3). If I’m adding things up correctly, the drivers listed above account for 38 Cup series championships.

I suppose you can look at that one of two ways. Either the cream always rises to the top at Martinsville, or prowess on short tracks used to go a lot further towards deciding a NASCAR championship in that era before all the mid-length, moderately banked cookie-cutter tracks took over the schedule the way dandelions take over a springtime lawn.

To that list you can add Herb Thomas (2 titles, 2 Martinsville wins) David Pearson (3 titles, 1 Martinsville win) Joe Weatherly (2 titles, 1 Martinsville win) Buck Baker (2 titles, 1 Martinsville win) Kyle Busch (1 title, 2 Martinsville wins) Brad Keselowski (1 title, 2 Martinsville wins) Kurt Busch (1 title, 1 Martinsville win.) Tim Flock (2 titles, 1 Martinsville win.) Rex White (1 title, 2 Martinsville wins.) Bobby Isaac (1 title, 2 Martinsville wins) Joey Logano (1 title, 1 Martinsville win) and Red Byron (1st NASCAR champion, first Martinsville race winner.)

That’s 56 (out of 70) combined Cup titles scored by Martinsville winners (not necessarily in the same year of course.) My point here, and I do have one, is the road to the championship runs through Martinsville. Always has, likely always will.

Martinsville is a charming anachronism of a place the sort of small southern town that’s becoming an endangered species these days. (And if I find it quaint, recall one town over from me is loaded with the Amish who still use a horse and buggy was their primary source of transportation. There’s quite the hullaballoo over there right now, to the point the Amish ever had a hullaballoo that is concerning a proposed casino and the Mariner pipeline.)

Martinsville is one of those places where the local’s manners still have them refer to you as “ma’am” or “sir” even if you are a long-haired kid with an earring driving an El Camino that sounds like Armageddon cranked to 11. Like many small Southern towns the economy was once dependent on textiles and furniture until Wally-World and other retailers of their ilk began flooding the market with cheaper imports from Asia.

One local business that hasn’t been driven under by cheap foreign competition is the Martinsville Speedway. They’ve been running NASCAR Cup races for as long as there’s been NASCAR Cup racing (and non-NASCAR races prior to that). Martinsville hosted the sixth race of NASCAR’s eight-race inaugural season, hosting at least two Cup events every year since for a total of 140 Cup events prior to this weekend’s race.

There were actually three Cup races at the track in 1961 for reasons I forget, perhaps because I was two at the time. Alright, I looked it up. Rain interrupted the first Martinsville race that year shortly before the halfway point that would have made the race official. With a grim forecast and a steady downpour the powers that be decided to just go ahead and call the race official and run another event a month later for fans who were miffed by the call.

Those events, bye and bye, were won by Joe Weatherly, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, about as talented a trio as ever to take to a NASCAR oval. My guess is that if NASCAR would decide to add a third Martinsville Cup race next year, the majority of fans would applaud the move as long as they got a vote in which track had to surrender a substandard date to make way for the third Martinsville race. About the only change of major consequence at Martinsville was when they decided to pave the joint between the two Cup races in 1955. There was some irritation amongst the racers that the powers that be had gone ahead and ruined a “perfectly good” race track by paving it.

But H. Clay Earles, the visionary who founded the Martinsville track wanted draw fans and their entire families to his track on Sundays after services. The ladyfolk weren’t so fond of returning home from the track with their clothes covered in mud and dust. Let’s just say that Earles knew a thing or two about promoting a race track. When Martinsville opened for its first race in 1947, there were just 750 seats. He sold 6,000 tickets to the event. Currently the population of Martinsville is listed as around 14,000 (on that internet thing anyway), but it roughly triples for two NASCAR race weekends per year (forever and ever, Amen, let us pray.)

If you’re thinking about attending a race soon or trying a new track, I’d urge you to check out a Martinsville race, based both on location and the overall quality of the racing.

If the locals in the area tend to be scrupulously polite, the racing itself at Martinsville tends to be anything but. Short tempers, smoking tires, caved in fenders and shaken fists tend to be the norm not the exception at the tiny little half-mile track with 36 cars or upwards trying to find running room between visits to the notoriously tight and crowded pit road.

I’m not sure about the terminology here so bear with me. When it comes to the decades, I’m used to hearing; the 70s, the 80s (even if I can’t remember much of that stretch of years) and the 90s. What do you call the period of time between the Ball dropping on New Year’s Eve 2010 until the December 31st next year? Is it called “the Tens”? However you want to refer to it my nominee from the best race of the decade to date is the Martinsville fall race of 2015.

You might recall Matt Kenseth arrived at Martinsville that late October weekend (the race itself was November 1) feeling a bit less than kindly disposed towards Joey Logano. Kenseth felt he had to settle one old score, one small point of pride, after the way the younger driver had moved Kenseth out of the way to take the win at Kansas two week’s prior.

Some questionable strategy calls between Logano and his Team Penske teammate Keselowski during the race further irritated Kenseth, who had a well-earned reputation as a driver slow to anger and sportsmanlike in his racing. That all went out the window that All Souls Day when Kenseth, his car already damaged, went ahead and put Logano into the wall. The crowd on hand had never heard that tune before, but they’d sung many similar songs out of the same hymnal and they loudly applauded Kenseth’s move. In fact, about the only similarly loud and near universal crowd reaction I ever heard during a NASCAR race was after Dale Earnhardt Jr. won races at Talladega.

Oddly enough, then NASCAR’s head honcho had termed Logano’s contact with Kenseth at Kansas as “quintessential” NASCAR. He has his band of thieves had a decidedly less enthusiastic reaction to Kenseth’s move on Logano at Martinsville parking Kenseth for the rest of the race and in fact the next two races.

After the dust had settled the racing naturally resumed. The fans had paid to see some action, and although by then they’d seen plenty, such events must be run to their conclusion, even as the last rays of the afternoon sun were fading into the darkness of a fall evening. And that afternoon Jeff Gordon went on to win what will presumably be his last Cup win of his career. The crowd responded enthusiastically to that unforeseen happenstance as well, a bit surprising in that many of the long-time fans on hand for the race hadn’t thought too much of Driver No. 24 earlier in his career. Just good manners or just a very good race? You decide.

Or perhaps if you’ve been following the sport long enough you might recall a little last lap tussle at Martinsville between Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip, all of whom gave their opinions on whether it was a good race after the fact.

Naturally, there has been an occasional race at Martinsville that wasn’t up to the track’s standards. Such is the nature of a real sport as opposed to orchestrated entertainment. But among my sect of the two wheel fraternity there’s an expression that a bad day aboard a Harley Davidson still beats a good day doing almost anything else. A mediocre race at Martinsville still beats the majority of the best races on the cookie cutters.

Over the years, NASCAR’s greatest have often battled it out at Martinsville, and sometimes it hasn’t been pretty. Fenders get bent, tires start smoking and unkind words are said over the radio

Yep, the late Mr. Earles figured out something it behooves every businessperson on any scale to take to heart. Whether you’re running NASCAR, a small local business, or doing something as inconsequential as writing a weekly column on the sport these words apply.

“The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants. When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money’s worth. And we’ve always tried to do just that. Your customers are your greatest assets and that will never change. You actually sell the customer a memory as much as a race. If their memories are good, they’ll keep coming back.”

And for the last 70 years, the fans have kept coming back to Martinsville.

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Bill B

Well said Matt and I agree. Only Darlington can compete with Martinsville. Bristol used to be in that group as well but between the chase and the repave the racing there has never been the same. I also agree that the 2015 race will always be the best in my eyes but it has more to do with Gordon winning his last race than the Logano/Kenseth deal (I get that the former probably wouldn’t have happened without the latter). I’d trade any of the 1.5 races (maybe with the exception of the 600) for a third race at Martinsville or a second race at Darlington.

Mike

Good article, Matt.

NAFTA, the anti-tobacco jihad, and el jeffe’s war on coal irreparably damaged the southwestern Virginia economy. The state is largely run by yankee outsiders and the state is that much worse for it.

Thank God for Martinsville…

Carl D.

I’ve made the trek to Martinsville twice. Both times I thoroughly enjoyed not just the actual racing, but the whole laid back atmosphere of the place. There’s something unique about watching a race at a track where a slow-rolling train passes by just behind the cheap seats. My home track is Darlington and there’s no pace like home, but I would never turn down tickets to the half-mile paper clip in the Virginia hills. I’m not gonna eat one of those scarlett-red hotdogs, though…

Charlie

I echo the sentiments, well written and right-on. Martinsville, its management, support-staff, racing, people, fans, are the best. Racers, not some yuppie that shows up for the surroundings. Hard working people who made racing the great sport you so accurately write about. Lots of action in the pack, great hotdogs, and not a bad seat in the house.
Yes, the industry and town has been decimated, NASCAR tried its best to drop it from the circuit. We need more and not less. A third date, say an evening in July when we would have been at Kentucky, priceless!

Rich Sachlis

Great track. Really sad to see all the empty seats on Sunday.

It is going to be very interesting, (scary?), to see what comes of the rumored reorganization and re-prioritizing of the 2021 Cup schedule. As the aptly named Stormy Daniels hilariously quipped on an SNL “cold open” last year, “a storm’s a-comin baby”.

timfromchandler

More Martinsville, Darlington, Bristol, Phoenix. Less Michigan, Texas, Auto Club, New Hampshire.

GTXcellent

Oh man that clip of the ’87 Goody’s Headache Powder 500…way back when Bill Jr was in charge, this was my very favorite time of the year – when the show would race at Bristol and tempers would flare, followed by Martinsville where the beating and banging would be a little more fierce, followed by tiny North Wilkesboro and finally when they got to Talladega and turned the boys loose…

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