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Keeping Pace

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Martinsville

Mark Martin, the four-time series runner-up and renaissance man at age 50, began the Chase as its top seed and promptly won the first event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He remained at the top of the standings for the Chase’s first three weeks, finally dropping to second place two weeks ago, yet still a championship contender.


Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

Week 6: Chase’s Second Half Off And Running At Martinsville

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With two consecutive victories and three overall during the past five weeks, reigning and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) has established himself as the frontrunner in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Heading into Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson leads Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin (No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet) and Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/NationalGuard.com Chevrolet), by 90 and 135 points, respectively.

That said, half of the Chase remains, and so do its possibilities. A synopsis of top-line storylines thus far:

Martin, the four-time series runner-up and renaissance man at age 50, began the Chase as its top seed and promptly won the first event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He remained at the top of the standings for the Chase’s first three weeks, finally dropping to second place two weeks ago, yet still a championship contender.

First-time Chase participant Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Chevrolet) not only proved he belonged in the title hunt, he pressured Martin and other front-runners through the Chase’s first four events. Damage from a spin last Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway finally dropped Montoya from third in the Chase standings to sixth entering Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500.

Gordon, the four-time series champion, also remains a contender thanks to three top-five finishes in the last three events. He’s in third place in the Chase standings heading to Martinsville.

Back-To-Back “Wild Cards”: Martinsville And Talladega

NASCAR’s smallest and largest tracks – Martinsville Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively – are combining for a potentially active two weeks in and out of the Chase standings.

Martinsville, tiny in comparison to Talladega, nevertheless is the big track’s equal in difficulty.

One of the country’s oldest racing facilities, .526-mile Martinsville hosted events during NASCAR’s debut season of 1949 and still poses problems for today’s drivers.

Hairpin turns, a flat surface and a unique combination of concrete and asphalt make Martinsville a tough venue in any era. Contact is a given, with priority given to keeping one’s car clean.

Heard of “boiling the brakes?”

Drivers do it regularly at Martinsville, punishing pads, fluid and pedal because they’re constantly on and off them heading into and out of the tight corners.

At 2.66-mile Talladega, which hosts the seventh Chase event next week, brakes often are an afterthought. It’s the season’s final restrictor-plate race and Talladega’s high-banked layout and unpredictability often lead to surprise winners and jumbled finishes and standings.

Loop Data Says: Martinsville Either Tough Or Terrific For Chase Participants

It’s all or nothing at Martinsville Speedway when analyzing the statistics of this season’s Chase field.

Either the championship competitors excel highly at Martinsville, or struggle mightily.

Four drivers in the top 12 have a Martinsville Driver Rating over 100.0: Jimmie Johnson (124.3), Jeff Gordon (124.3), Tony Stewart (114.1) and Denny Hamlin (106.3).

For each of those drivers, Martinsville – a track notorious for its unpredictability – ranks at or near the top of their personal best list.

Martinsville ranks No. 1 for both Gordon and Johnson. In fact, it’s by far the best track in terms of Driver Rating for Gordon. Second-best for the four-time series champion is Darlington at 114.4.

Johnson’s second-best track in terms of Driver Rating is Kansas Speedway, at 122.6 – 1.7 points off his Martinsville rating.

Martinsville is Tony Stewart’s third-best track, behind Watkins Glen (135.0) and New Hampshire (114.9). It’s also Denny Hamlin’s third-best track, behind Richmond (121.0) and Pocono (115.9).

On the other side of the statistical spectrum sits Kurt Busch (81.1), Greg Biffle (65.5), Carl Edwards (80.0) and Kasey Kahne (76.1). Martinsville ranks near the bottom for all four.

In terms of Driver Rating, it’s Busch’s fourth-worst track; Biffle’s worst; Edwards’ third-worst; and Kahne’s seventh-worst.

Still, Busch – at least – has been one of the strongest drivers on short tracks this season.

Busch ranks sixth in short track Driver Rating with a 103.1, and has an Average Running Position of 8.5 and 131 Fastest Laps Run. There have been five short track races thus far this season: Two at Bristol, two at Richmond and one at Martinsville.

The statistical rundown of short-track performance is one list at where Johnson fails to sit at the very top. He is close, though.

In the five short-track races this season, Johnson has two top fives, three top 10s, a Driver Rating of 106.2 (fifth-best), an Average Running Position of 9.4 and 131 Fastest Laps Run.

Ahead of Johnson in short track Driver Rating are the two drivers closest in the points standings: Gordon and Mark Martin.

Gordon has a Driver Rating of 109.3 and an Average Running Position of 7.4 in the five short track races. Martin, the only driver to score a top-10 finish in each of the five races, has a Driver Rating of 114.6, an Average Running Position of 5.8 and 168 Fastest Laps Run.

2009 Short Track Driver Ratings (5 Races)
                            Driver
Driver                   Rating
Denny Hamlin         126.0 
Kyle Busch             117.9 
Mark Martin             114.6 
Jeff Gordon              109.3 
Jimmie Johnson       106.2
Kurt Busch              103.1
Ryan Newman           98.7
Clint Bowyer              92.3
Marcos Ambrose        88.5
Juan Pablo Montoya   87.8

All Together Now: Martinsville Fans To Make History At Start Of TUMS Fast Relief 500

Instead of watching pre-race activities, fans attending Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway will be a part of them.

All fans attending the NASCAR Sprint Cup event – the sixth race in the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – will serve as Grand Marshals and Official Starters.

It’s a first in series history and of course there are commemoratives: Once they reach their seats, fans will receive a 12” x 15” green flag bearing the Grand Marshal logo.

They’ll wave their flags to help NASCAR start Sunday’s event – following the lead of the series’ two official starters, Rodney Wise and Rick Monroe, in the flag stand – plus, fans will collectively issue the traditional “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” command.

Count on a green sea – more than 70,000 fans wielding their commemorative flags.

“Fans have been our top priority since Martinsville Speedway opened more than 60 years ago,” said track president Clay Campbell, whose grandfather, H. Clay Earles, opened the track in September 1947. “Fans have always come first with us and what better way to show that than making them all the Grand Marshal. I can’t wait to hear ‘Gentlemen, Start Your Engines’ for the TUMS Fast Relief 500.”

It’s not unheard of for fans to join the day’s designated Grand Marshal in issuing the command, but Sunday’s ceremony marks the first time all fans in attendance will have that honor.

“The fans are the foundation of our sport,” said Darren Singer, vice president of marketing for TUMS. “This wasn’t a difficult decision. It provides an opportunity for the sport to show appreciation for their support. The fans come to the track each weekend, cheering and supporting their favorite drivers.”

Also scheduled: Sunday’s 43-team field will salute the fans prior to the start, with drivers and over 400 team members thanking fans with a special gesture. Richard Petty, newly-selected last week as a member of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame’s class, also will address Sunday’s crowd.

On The Line: Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota) was the guest on this week’s NASCAR teleconference. Currently 11th in the Chase, the native Virginian returns to one of his favorite tracks for Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500.

Following are excerpts; the full transcript (and audio file) are at www.NASCARMedia.com.

Q: You’ve had good success at Martinsville Speedway. Is it a mix of factors or simply an affinity and respect for a historical venue?

Hamlin: I think Martinsville is just a racetrack where the driver can make a little bit of a difference if his car’s not 100% there. I’ve got a lot of laps at that racetrack, so the extra experience always helps.

I think some drivers just adapt to certain racetracks quicker than others, and Martinsville has been that for us.

Q: How do you look back on this Chase and what is the difference between maybe finishing third or fourth in the points versus finishing ninth or tenth?

Hamlin: I’m going to look back on it, and obviously be very disappointed. Because we came into the Chase with so much momentum and have performed extremely well on the racetrack. If they gave points for us running up front for most of the time we’d maybe have a shot at this championship. But they don’t. It’s only on finishing position. That’s bitten us right at the very end.

Q: What’s your outlook as the second half of the Chase begins this weekend?

Hamlin: We’re going to run well. We’re going to contend for every race win from here on out, I’m absolutely sure of that. But we need to finish them off, get those wins and try to get as high in the points as we can.

What is feasible for us right now, if we do go on a roll like that is the top five in points. We can get back there if we run and we finish just like we’ve been running. There is no doubt in my mind we’ll contend each one of five weeks. We have no weak track in the last five.

Q: What’s your take on Jimmie Johnson as the current Chase leader and a three-time series champion?

Hamlin: He obviously does a good job of not making mistakes. And that’s where I’d put him above everyone, is not making mistakes. Obviously letting his car do a lot of work. Taking it easy on the car in the beginning, working on it, working on it.

When he has to push it in the end, he’s got the car there for it. He’s got the mindset to win those races and that’s what makes him the best.

Give The Champ His Statistical Due: Johnson Chasing History

Out front is where Jimmie Johnson likes to be in autumn, and aside from the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup title, the reigning and three-time series champion is chasing other career marks.

A fourth consecutive title would make history. No NASCAR driver has won four consecutive championships. Cale Yarborough, whose record Johnson tied last year, is the only other driver to win three straight.

The latest of Johnson’s series-high six wins this season – last Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway – also was notable; it tied Buck Baker for 13th on NASCAR’s all-time win list.

That’s career victory No. 46 in 286 starts, meaning Johnson approaches this season’s final five Chase races from a position of strength.

He’s won the last two Martinsville events and five of the last six. His average finish during that span – five victories and one fourth-place finish – is 1.5.

Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon both own a series-best 124.3 Driver Rating at Martinsville, according to pre-race Loop Data.

Johnson has an average finish of 5.3 in 15 starts there. He also has six wins, 11 top fives, 14 top 10s and one pole, and leads two other pre-race Loop Data categories – Laps Led (1,216) and Quality Passes (214, of cars in the top 15 under green-flag conditions).

He ranks second in several categories – Average Running Position (6.6), Fastest Laps Run (482), Average Green Flag Speed (91.403 mph) and Laps in the Top 15 (4,001 or 88.7 %).

Who’s Mr. Martinsville? Gordon, Johnson Contest That Title

Before Jimmie Johnson assumed the title, there was another Mr. Martinsville – Jeff Gordon.

And smart observers shouldn’t overlook the four-time series champion in either Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 or the second half of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Gordon leads all active drivers with seven Martinsville victories. He’s also within striking distance of Johnson in the Chase standings, only 135 points back, in third place.

Gordon’s last win at Martinsville came in 2005, when he swept both races there. He has an average finish of 6.8 in 33 Martinsville starts, plus 21 top fives, 27 top 10s and seven poles.

Gordon leads four important pre-race Loop Data categories for Martinsville – Average Running Position (6.3), Fastest Laps Run (539), Average Green Flag Speed (91.463 mph), and Laps in the Top 15 (4,039 or 89.6%).

Lurking even closer to Johnson is another Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, who’s second in the Chase standings, 90 points behind Johnson.

Martin has two wins, three poles, 11 top fives, 22 top 10s and an average running position of 13.3 in 43 career starts at Martinsville.

And while Johnson may be the driver to beat, both at Martinsville and in the Chase, the latter race is hardly over.

Johnson himself set the precedent, coming from 146 points back after the first five races of the 2006 Chase to win his first of three consecutive series titles.

The largest deficit overcome with five races to go (since the 1975 advent of the current points system) is 191 points.

That was the margin between Alan Kulwicki and then-leader Bill Elliott in 1992.

Kulwicki rallied to win that year’s title by 10 points – the second-closest title margin in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history.

NSCS Etc.

Martinsville Milestones

Two points of interest ahead of Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500:

If Jeff Gordon wins the pole during Friday’s qualifying session, he’ll tie three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip for all-time poles at Martinsville (eight).

Also, if a Hendrick Motorsports driver wins, team owner Rick Hendrick will tie Petty Enterprises for most owner victories at Martinsville (19).

Statistically Speaking
 
With five races remaining, these numbers illustrate this season’s close competition:

  • 13 different race winners
  • 10 different Coors Light Pole winners
  • 42 drivers led at least one lap
  • 35 drivers have scored at least one Top 10 this year
  • Average Margin of Victory of 1.138 seconds
  • 16 races with an MOV under one second
  • Average of 10 leaders per race
  • Average of 19 lead changes per race
  • Average of 21 green flag passes for the lead all along the track
  • Average of 2,804 green flag passes per race
  • 53% of the cars finished on the lead lap
  • 84% of the cars were running at the finish

Virginians In The Garage

From Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet: car chief David Bryant (Farmville) and engineer Tom Stewart and mechanic Jim Jenkins (both of Hampton).

From Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet: crew chief Darian Grubb (Floyd), mechanic Darrell Haskins (Danville) and shock specialist Adam Gravitt (South Boston).

From Jeff Burton’s No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet: Burton (South Boston), engineer Jeff Curtis (Fairfax), mechanic Greg Meredith (Fancy Gap), transporter driver Franky Nester (Ridgeway), tire specialist Tracy Ramsey (Fredericksburg), transporter driver James Nunn (Ararat) and gas man Curt Bowman (Meadows of Dan).

From Elliott Sadler’s No. 19 Best Buy Dodge: Sadler himself (Emporia), engineer Kevin Kidd (Tazewell) and gas man Rodney Rhodes (Hickory).

From Clint Bowyer’s No. 33 BB&T Chevrolet: Tire specialist Charles Moles (Floyd) and transporter drivers Barry Sheppard and Mark Williams (both of Stuart).

From Kyle Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s – Halloween Chevrolet: Tire specialist Keith Eads (Arlington) and front tire carrier Brad Donaghy (Orange County).

From Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont/National Guard.com Chevrolet: Transporter driver Kirk George (Ararat) and gas man Caleb Hurd (Pulaski).

From Mark Martin’s No. 5 Kellogg’s/CARQUEST Chevrolet: Nos. 5 & 88 team manager Brian Whitesell (Stuarts Draft), spotter Jeremy Brickhouse (Chesapeake) and front tire changer Kyle Turner (Yorktown).

From Scott Speed’s No. 82 Red Bull Toyota: Mechanic Pete Wright (Martinsville).

From AJ Allmendinger’s No. 44 Coleman Natural Foods Dodge: Jack man Ed Watkins (Richmond).

From Michael Waltrip’s No. 55 NAPA Adaptive One Brakes Toyota: Jack man Anthony Cardamone (Bristol).

Richard Childress Racing Fan Day

One of the sport’s best-known teams will host fans from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 22 at its Welcome, North Carolina headquarters.

It’s all part of a celebration of owner Richard Childress’ 40th anniversary in NASCAR, and Thursday’s events include tours of the RCR campus’ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shop, autograph sessions with Childress and all RCR drivers, a pit-crew competition, sponsor displays and more.

General admission is $5, with additional packages (and access) available at $15 and $25.

Proceeds benefit the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma, organized in July 2008 by the Childress family with Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Its mission is to prevent and treat life-threatening injuries to children and to help kids affected by life-threatening injuries recover and lead normal lives. For more information, visit www.RCRFanDay.com.

Up Next: Talladega Superspeedway

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup heads to Talladega Superspeedway for next Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 (ABC, 12 p.m.)

Always an anticipated Chase race, this event moves from early October to the end of the month in 2009.

Tony Stewart is the defending race winner. Travis Kvapil (No. 37 Long John Silver’s Dodge) won last year’s pole.

Dale Earnhardt, recently selected as a member of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class, leads all drivers with 10 career wins at Talladega. He also leads with 23 top fives and 27 top 10s there.

Bill Elliott leads all drivers with 10 poles and 54 career starts at Talladega. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six Talladega wins.

Fast Facts

The Race: TUMS Fast Relief 500

The Place: Martinsville Speedway (.526- mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Oct. 25

The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 263 miles//500 laps

TV: ABC, 1 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128; (WZBB FM 99.9 local)

2008 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

2008 Polesitter: None (weather)

Schedule: Friday: Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. Saturday: Practice, 10-10:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

2009 Top 12 Drivers
    Driver                     Points

 1 Jimmie Johnson         5,923
 2 Mark Martin               5,833
 3 Jeff Gordon                5,788
 4 Tony Stewart             5,768
 5 Kurt Busch                5,746
 6 Juan Pablo Montoya   5,728
 7 Greg Biffle                 5,655
 8 Ryan Newman           5,635
 9 Kasey Kahne             5,592
10 Carl Edwards             5,582
11 Denny Hamlin            5,551
12 Brian Vickers             5,438


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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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