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Jekyll and Hyde out at Martinsville

NASCAR's shortest track highlights best driving skills and worst tempers.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

Martinsville Speedway is the ultimate test of a Winston Cup driver's reaction time, but not just when working the brake pedal or turning the steering wheel. At NASCAR's shortest track, you have to be quick with an apology.

Every second counts.

"One guy smacks another, and you hear him calling his spotter. 'Hey, tell him I'm sorry. I didn't mean it,"' veteran driver Kyle Petty said. "You want that apology in the other guy's ear as fast as you can. ... You'd better start asking forgiveness before that guy gathers his car up and comes looking for you."

Martinsville, site of today's Virginia 500, is a Cup track in miniature -- just .526 miles. But that alone is not the problem. The combination of length, a paper clip-shaped layout, imperceptible 12-degree banking in the turns and 43 rumbling stock cars make it a recipe for trouble.

For 500 laps.

"Martinsville is a really, really difficult track," points leader Matt Kenseth said. "It's very difficult to pass. It's very, very small for how big our cars are, and it's way, way too small to have 43 cars on it."

Martinsville played host to its first NASCAR race in 1956, when Buck Baker won from the pole at an average speed of 60.95 mph. It's safe to say no one back then would have considered cramming 43 cars onto the narrow, dizzying track.

"Thirty would be plenty there," said Ricky Rudd, who made his Martinsville debut in 1977, finishing 27th in a 30-car field. "If you have to start at the back of the field, you can literally see the leader in your rearview mirror when the race starts."

Three-time winner Jeff Gordon, who will start from the pole, said the weeding-out process is an important element of the race.

"You won't see this race start to materialize until you get rid of 12 to 15 cars," Gordon said. "I hope I'm not one of them, but that's just kind of the law of physics. Once you narrow the field down, the race starts coming into its own.

"You don't stop seeing cautions because all of a sudden everybody woke up and started being smart. You stop seeing cautions because there aren't so many people bunched up, banging and trying to get from the back to the front to keep from getting a lap down."

Fact check: The track record for cautions is 18 in October 2000. For caution laps, it is 111 in April 2000. Sounds like 2000 was a fun year at Martinsville.

"I contend we shouldn't be racing there because 43 is too many, and sending cars home is wrong," said Mark Martin, who made his Martinsville debut in 1981, finishing third in a 30-car field. "Bristol is the same way -- 43 cars is way too many there. But what are you going to do?"


Perhaps more than once.

"It's just good short-track racing," said Tony Stewart, whose opinion has changed from a few years ago when he suggested filling Martinsville with water and turning it into a bass pond. "Martinsville is probably the only place left on the schedule where if you knock the front end off the car, you can go on and still win the race."

Most drivers say the key to a good finish is taking care of the car. Don't cook the brakes driving too hard into the sharp corners. Don't abuse the engine. But success is no longer merely a mechanical issue.

"The biggest thing is controlling your temper," said Jimmy Spencer, not known for his anger management skills. "Of all the tracks we go to, Martinsville is probably the easiest to lose your temper at. If a guy does bump you, he probably doesn't mean it. You're just running so close and it's so competitive."

Just remain calm.

Yeah, right.

"Don't get mad?" Petty said. "That's like taking 43 race fans, handing them one hot dog and saying, 'You guys divide it up evenly -- and be nice about it."'

Many consider racing at Martinsville a matter of give and take, but Petty thinks escalation is a more appropriate term.

"Watch two cars get together," he said. "The first time, it's not too bad. But theguy who got hit gets mad, and he hits back, only a lot harder. Now the first guy is mad because he knows he hit the other guy, but he didn't mean to hit him. So, he hits back even harder. It escalates. If those two cars keep running together on the track, sooner or later, one is going to wreck the other one."

By then, it won't do much good to apologize.

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