Last week's NASCAR Sprint Cup race could hardly have been any bigger, in just about every sense of the word: the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway is the longest track on which the drivers race all year and features the ever-present threat of 'The Big One'. The stakes for the Chase contenders were as astronomically high as they've ever been, and at the end of the race three major contenders for this year's championship (Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch) were all eliminated from contention.
All of which could hardly be a bigger contrast to this week's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia, which at just 0.526-miles in length is the shortest racetrack that the Cup drivers compete on all season. As the first of three races comprising the third round of the Chase, none of the remaining eight title contenders are facing elimination this weekend, although that still doesn't mean that can take it easy - just one bad result here could still see a driver facing an insurmountable setback to their title hopes.
And a setback is almost as likely to happen here as it was at Talladega. Instead of 'The Big One' there is a pressure-cooker claustrophobia in play that seems to make even the most level-headed of drivers at risk of a hot-headed meltdown over perceived slights and wrongs on the part of their rivals. So what do the drivers make of the abrupt change from the wide-open spaces of Talladega to the confines of the short track commonly known as the 'Paperclip'?
"Martinsville is a perplexing place, but it's also the simplest looking racetrack," noted Martin Truex Jr., who drives the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy. "You tell yourself how hard can it be to get around there? It's not hard to drive on, it's just hard to race on. The track changes so much throughout the weekend. What you think you will need in the race after three practice sessions seldom holds true. It seems like you're always guessing on Sunday to try and get that right setup.
"Once you crack the Martinsville code or find that niche you can make things happen. It seems like the same guys win over and over there. I just haven't quite figured it out yet," he admitted.
"Two extremes going from Talladega to the short track," said Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick. "We actually qualified well there this year [in the spring] but needed to finish better. Hopefully we can do that. It's a short track and those leaders are on you very quickly if you don't have a good qualifying run. Qualify better and let it play out from there."
"Track position is everything, everywhere, but at Martinsville, it is just so easy to lose it," added Patrick's SHR team mate Kurt Busch, who won here earlier in the year. "It doesn't take much to find yourself going backward, whether it's a situation with someone bumping you out of the way or you get too high on the track and up in the marbles. Then, deal with what that does to the tires and, boom, next thing you know, you may have had a 10th-place car and now you are 18th.
"It's a goal all day to work your way forward and then just to have smooth pit stops to carry you through those mid-points of the race. Then, at the end, when everything is on the line, you have to be aggressive and you can't be afraid to use the fenders on people to get that solid finish."
It's a hard track for rookies to get the hang of, as Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson was quick to agree.
"Martinsville is probably the toughest track on me, just because it's way different than anything I've ever done," said the 22-year old who took over the race seat of the #42 car from Juan Pablo Montoya over the winter. "You get hard on the brakes, almost stopping in the middle of the corner, and you run the same line pretty much the whole race.
"Our first race at Martinsville wasn't too good, but the upside is there's a lot of room for improvement," he continued. "The team is still really hungry for a win, and one at Martinsville would probably be one of the biggest wins of my career, just because of how tough it is on me."
"I am looking forward to Martinsville this weekend," added Larson's CGR team mate Jamie McMurray. "This is always a good trip. We are close to home and Martinsville is one of my favorite tracks. We seem to have good cars here so that certainly makes it fun. We had a really fast car in the spring race, but cut a tyre while running in the top-five and that pretty much ruined our day. We will look to rebound from a tough race last weekend and hopefully put our McDonald's Chevy SS in position for another strong run at Martinsville."
The Richard Childress Racing drivers had a different take on Martinsville from many of the other drivers.
"As different as Martinsville Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are, they're both very similar in how we approach them," insisted Paul Menard. "A lot of it is track position. You go off into turn 1 and it's about trying to maintain your line but still trying to get around the guy in front of you without giving up to the guy behind you. A lot of similarities between the two tracks even though they are two completely opposite tracks. It's good ol' short track racing where if you get your fenders knocked off, it doesn't really matter a whole lot. It's hard racing."
"We had a really good race at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, so I am looking forward to the fall race," said Austin Dillon, who seems to have picked up the Martinsville Code quicker than his fellow rookies including Larson. "The competition is always really intense in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but it's especially intense right now with just a few races left in the Chase and Martinsville is one of those tracks where you have to fight to stay in it.
"Things happen fast," he added. "I'm hoping for a solid day. We have nothing to lose at this point, so we're going to give it our all."
For some drivers, the objective at Martinsville is a personal one - such as Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. seeking to overcome the embarrassment of failing to make the grid for last week's race after a confusion over qualifying rules tweaks for superspeedways and who now faces another big challenge this weekend at one of his less-than-favourite venues.
"I've really struggled at Martinsville," he admitted. "Martinsville is a tough paper-clip shaped track. We had a good run going in the spring but ended up having a mechanical issue that sent our Ford to the garage. Track position is crucial at Martinsville so if we can stay up front and out of trouble, we should be able to leave Martinsville with a solid finish."
But for other drivers, this weekend is all about the history of the place. Martinsville was built in 1947 and was one of the first paved oval tracks in NASCAR, and also the only race track that has been on the NASCAR schedule since the very beginning in 1948. Each winner of a Cup race here receives a grandfather clock as the winner's trophy, a nod to the area's famous furniture industry.
"I think Martinsville isn't just one of the most historic tracks, it is the
most historic track in NASCAR," opined Penske's Brad Keselowski. "It goes back to the grassroots of not just NASCAR, but automobile racing.
"There's lots of beating and banging. It's kind of back to the roots, not just because of the age of the track, but because of the genre of the track, as a short track," he added. "It's obviously a paperclip ... It's very very small, very very tight. It has fast straightaways and very slow corners."
"Martinsville is a track I have been trying to get a win at for a long time. I grew up in a house full of clocks so it's been pretty elusive," said Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I'm looking forward to having another opportunity this weekend. I love short-track racing, I love the history of Martinsville and what it represents. It's a fun race. It can be frustrating and you've got to battle all day long to maintain your track position, but it's a good challenge."
"I actually remember coming to Martinsville as a kid and watching races," contributed Michael Waltip Racing's Brian Vickers, who was on pole last week for the start of the GEICO 500 at Talladega. "We stood in the corners before pit road changed and watched the cars go by. As a kid I always thought it was pretty cool the train went by the race track. Martinsville has always been a special place for me whether it was coming as a fan, running my first stock car race there, running Late Models or now running in the Cup Series here."
"It's one of those places where there's a lot of history," agreed Danica Patrick's crew chief Tony Gibson, who has just signed a new contract extension with the team. "It's like Darlington, where it's been around forever. It makes or breaks a lot of race car drivers.
"When you go into a place like that, you don't want it to be a bad experience," he added. "You want to have a positive experience and be part of the history, not part of the negative history. I enjoy going there and racing where some of the greats have raced."
While the focus this weekend will inevitably be on the eight remaining Chase contenders for the 2014 title, the 35 other drivers out on the track will be just as keen to secure themselves a place in Martinsville's stories history by stealing the win for themselves. For some - drivers like Johnson, Earnhardt and Busch - it's the way they want to recover from last week's disappointment of crashing out of the championship battle. One thing's for sure - no one's got any room to give an inch at Martinsville this weekend.
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