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Race Day: Restarts Could Finish Race Leaders

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 25 2009
Martinsville can be an ominous place. It could be even more so this afternoon.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Martinsville can be an ominous place. It could be even more so this afternoon. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

U-turns are what Carl Edwards called those two things which connect the two co-joined dragstrips known as Martinsville Speedway. Not corners, as they do in the NASCAR media guide. But U-turns.

NASCAR drivers have been plunging into those things, whatever you want to call them, since 1949 after restarts. But today, things will be a little bit different in U-turn 1 when green flags bring the field back to life after cautions.

Today, the lead drivers at the front of the field in the Tums Fast Relief 500, will be taking the plunges alongside a large group of their fellow leaders as what have become known as “double-file restarts” will be used at Martinsville for the first time.

Should be, um, interesting, the drivers in the Chase said.

Here is what select drivers had to say about the situation:

Kurt Busch: “As bad as it’s been in the past, with the lapped cars in one lane and the lead-lappers in the other, this (weekend’s race) will be the insane end of impossible.”

Mark Martin: “I expect the double-file restarts to be very similar to what we’ve had at the other races where we’ve had winners and losers, but they have worked better than I expected and I hope that they work better than expected here.”

Brian Vickers: “I think it’s going to change the finishing order dramatically every restart throughout the field.  If you’re hung on the outside and you can’t get down, you may lose several spots.  The next restart, maybe you’re on the inside and you gain several.  All in all, it’ll probably come out full circle, but sometimes you have those weeks where you’re always in the right lane and sometimes you have those weeks where you’re always in the wrong lane.”

Trivia time:

Who was the youngest driver to win a Cup race at Martinsville? (Answer below)

Fast facts

What: Tums Fast Relief 500
Where: Martinsville (Va.) Speedway
When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET
TV: ABC, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: .526-mile oval
Race distance: 500 laps/263 miles
Estimated pit window: 140-155 laps
2008 winner: Jimmie Johnson
2008 polesitter: Jimmie Johnson (owners points)
2009 polesitter: Ryan Newman

Points leaders: 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.

A number of things to consider

With five races remaining, there series has had:
13 different race winners
10 different 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 percent of the cars finished on the lead lap
84 percent of the cars were running at the finish

So, just who owns the place?

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.

Milestones

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

Long and short of it

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.

Trivia answer:

Richard Petty (04/10/1960 – 22 years, 9 months, 8 days)

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.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 25 2009
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