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'Paper clip' track slow but tough

With little room to run, brakes and patience take precedence at today's Martinsville 500.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002

With little room to run, brakes and patience take precedence at today's Martinsville 500.

Two weeks ago, drivers in the closest Winston Cup championship chase in decades dreaded racing at Talladega Superspeedway because danger lurks in every inch of NASCAR's largest track.

Trouble comes in small packages, too. Martinsville Speedway is the circuit's smallest track, a flat half-mile oval shaped like a paper clip. Today's Martinsville 500 will be hard on engines, brakes, tires and drivers.

Contenders, beware.

"It's a tough track," said veteran Mark Martin, who has two Martinsville wins, the most recent in the spring of 2000. "It's little, narrow, and rough at times. To be honest, 43 cars are probably too much for that track, but you just have to make the most of it."

Tony Stewart leads the standings, but with the top five drivers separated by 182, the points race is the closest since the system was adopted in 1975. Rookie Jimmie Johnson trails by 97, Martin by 122, rookie Ryan Newman by 165 and Rusty Wallace by 182.

Stewart, in his fourth season, has referred to Martinsville as "a parking lot with curbs" and suggested a better use for the property would be to "fill it with water and make a bass pond out of it." After winning there in 2000, he has learned to appreciate the 55-year-old track.

"You learn how to protect the car, how to not beat it up," said Stewart, who set the track qualifying record of 95.371 mph in 2000 but will start 31st today. "You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience. Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like that. ... After going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient out of necessity, basically."

Stewart's feast-or-famine record at Martinsville is evidence of the track's fickle nature. In seven career starts he has four top-seven finishes, including the win. He also has three finishes of 20th or worse, including a pair of 41st-place runs.

A good old fender-rubbing track, Martinsville is one of the few venues where aerodynamics and horsepower have little impact. There is no banking in the 800-foot straightaways, and the 12-degree banking in the corners is barely perceptible behind the wheel of a 3,400-pound stock car.

"The big issue is to try not to overheat the brakes, which is really hard to do when you're racing on that little paper clip," said Johnson, who finished 35th in the spring race this year after retiring early with a vibration. "You just have to budget them. There's just a rhythm that you learn and pick up after being there enough times."

Newman starts from the pole today but considers Martinsville the site of his worst rookie mistake in April.

"I punched a hole in the radiator being impatient with a slower car," said Newman, who finished 41st when the car overheated after 257 of 500 laps. "You try to put it behind you and forget about it, but it's a mistake I made."

Adding a twist to the already tricky scenario is that the track's owners recently ground the corners of the racing surface to smooth out some bumps. The rough surface may be tough on tires, affecting pit strategy.

"That plays right back into our hands," said Bill Wilburn, first-year crew chief for Rusty Wallace, who leads active drivers with six Martinsville wins and 15 top fives. "That means the tire will wear more, and you won't see these guys going 200 laps on the same set of tires."

At Talladega, a 2.66-mile tri-oval, drivers fear a big wreck because cars travel in a large pack at nearly 200 mph. At Martinsville, average speeds don't crack 100, but cars travel in a large pack because there is no room to spread out. Even a fender-bender can have a dangerous ripple effect.

"It's really unpredictable," Stewart said. "Even if it happens four or five cars in front you, you're most likely going to get caught up in it somehow just because you're racing so close together."

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