Race Weekend Central

Professor of Speed: NASCAR Turning a New Leaf in Virginia

Now that NASCAR’s foray to the frontier is finished, the racing community can set its sights on another exciting venture.

It’s time for Brian France’s Traveling Circus to pitch its tent at Martinsville.

The .526-mile paved paperclip just might be the tonic NASCAR Nation needs after three events west of the Mississippi. While Kevin Harvick continues his assault on Richard Petty’s record of 11 consecutive top-two finishes, maybe it’s a good time to make the move to a short track.

One difference between next weekend at Martinsville and last weekend at Fontana: at least Martinsville is small enough for everyone to see what track conditions are like. There’s no place for debris to hide when everyone’s nearly sitting on top of all the action.

And Martinsville has been part of the action since NASCAR’s early days. The track is firmly entrenched in the history of the sport: a reminder of stock car racing before the influx of national television coverage, major corporate sponsors, and the buzz of social media.

Red Byron may not have been on Twitter, but he likely had fans commenting after his Sprint Cup win at Martinsville in the fall of 1949. One hundred and thirty-one Cup events later, the allure of this little speedway remains strong.

Perhaps Martinsville is the appropriate place to knock the “Harvick Express” off its tracks. Hendrick Motorsports is the winningest Sprint Cup operation in the track’s history with 22 victories. Eight of those were earned by Jimmie Johnson alone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the most recent race at Martinsville last October, so might this be an event where lurking around the top 10 one week means having yet another grandfather clock shipped to Hendrick headquarters the next?

Not if Kevin Harvick has anything to say about it.

Harvick is closing in on the NASCAR record for consecutive top-two finishes, a mark set by Petty 40 years ago. If one driver has written the annals of Martinsville, it’s “King Richard.”

Petty currently holds several records at the track, including most races (67), most wins (15), most top fives (30) and most top 10s (37). If Jeff Gordon can get his farewell season turned around, he may set a new mark for laps led in Cup races at Martinsville (he’s 11 shy of Cale Yarborough’s record). Gordon also has a shot at tying Petty for top fives and top 10s, and breaking Darrell Waltrip’s record for most poles (eight).

No wonder Martinsville seem like a good place to shift the fortunes of the 2015 Sprint Cup season.

Not that this weekend’s STP 500 is a Hendrick slam dunk. Penske Racing has enjoyed success at the track (six wins), with both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano having decent performances despite zero victories (yet) over the years. Likewise, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing have both scored seven wins at Martinsville, so to give Sunday’s trophy outright to either Stewart-Haas Racing or HMS is reactionary, at best.

Much of the uncertainty about Martinsville stems from the rules changes we’ve embraced/cursed thus far in 2015. While many in NASCAR Nation say the racing has improved, many others grumble about the lack of disparity in race results. If the names near the front rarely change, does that mean a better product?

I guess it all depends on who your favorite driver is.

Granted, all of the above can be moot once NASCAR hits the hectic half-mile that is Martinsville. The spring race there brings with it all sorts of variables (changing weather conditions, unstable temperatures, the new rules package, added concerns over when/if to throw a yellow flag).

Heck, even Martinsville’s legendary hot dog has changed over the past few weeks. Is nothing in our sport truly sacred?

To me, one thing is truly sacred: the edge-of-your-seat excitement of 43 cars running 500 laps at Martinsville Speedway. Races there can turn the tide of a team’s season, even if the NASCAR rulebook and the hot dogs have changed.

About the author

Dr. Mark Howell is a college professor whose life and area of specialization is all about motorsports. He has published two books on the topic, has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to talk about NASCAR and has been part of the Frontstretch team since 2011. Mark also spent three years (2001-2003) as a part-time pit crew member in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. As a professor, Mark teaches courses in advanced writing, popular culture, and film studies. He is also on the nominating committee of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Daytona Beach, Florida. In January 2017, Mark was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It has curtailed his writing for Frontstretch, but he still manages to provide content whenever possible.

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