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Stewart’s Martinsville Move Still Raising Eyebrows

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 30 2012

Tony Stewart's pass on Jimmie Johnson during the race at Martinsville last fall is still being talked about. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – NASCAR returns to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, the site of defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart’s remarkable pass around five-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson during the closing moments of last fall’s 500 lap event here.

Following a late-race restart, Stewart accomplished a rare feat by making the outside line work to navigate around Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet.

“That was really one of those moments where you really kind of raise your eyebrows, because I couldn’t get my car to go on the outside at all on the restarts last year, and we would lose spots,” said Kevin Harvick, the defending champion of Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on the .526-mile hairpin-shaped oval.

“Stewart could make it happen for a couple of laps up there and take the track position. That’s what won him the race. Those guys have been really good on the restarts. That’s probably been our weakest point over the last few months going into last year.

“The first part of this year is just the first couple of laps. We’re definitely working on that. The No. 14 definitely has that figured out for sure.”

Kansas Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Pocono Raceway will be repaved this season.

Kansas is one of those tracks headed for a facelift. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

And Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith says he’ll make changes to the racing surface at Bristol Motor Speedway that will likely bring back the bump-and-run method of racing at the .533-mile oval in Tennessee.

But Cup driver Denny Hamlin says he is no fan of any track being repaved or reconfigured unless the surface is coming apart. He’d like to see track promoters seek input from drivers before tampering with their facilities.

“I don’t know who (the promoters) talk to honestly,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know of any driver, in my opinion, that would choose to repave any race track that we have over the old surface. And that includes Phoenix.

“Drivers have more in their hands when it’s an old surface. You can make up more. It’s the tires that we have to run on with a new surface. It’s so hard and it’s all about track position. It’s all about who stays out and get the track position just because he’s got the clean air.”

Jimmie Johnson has won just twice in the past 49 races. By his lofty standards, he’s mired in a big-time slump.

Jimmie Johnson is looking backward. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

So what is Johnson doing to get back on track? He’s actually looking in his rear-view mirror.

“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” said Johnson, a six-time winner at Martinsville. “Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me; and some other issues in between.

“So, I hate that opportunities slip away. I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”

Rick Hendrick, who fields Chevrolets for Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, has been stuck on 199 Cup wins for nearly six months.

So can fan favorite Earnhardt break the drought and delivered the man known as “Mr. H” the milestone victory?

“It would be a good win for us,” Earnhardt said. “I mean we would love to win anywhere but we would like to be the team and I think all four teams would like to be the team that would win the 200th win for Rick.

“He does so much for everybody and rarely do you get an opportunity to give something back to him of this kind of magnitude so I think that’s why we would all love to win it but we are just going to try and work hard, be smart, run a good race and hopefully that is going to put us in position to fight for the win at the end.”

– Jeff Hood can be reached at jhood@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 30 2012
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