From bull ring to paper clip

Published 7:48 pm Friday, March 27, 2009

From the world’s fastest half-mile track at Bristol last week to a slower, but just as exciting, half-mile track at Martinsville this week. To run on the two shortest tracks on the NASCAR circuit back-to-back is one of the little quirks on the schedule.

My description of Martinsville being just as exciting as Bristol would have generated laughs among NASCAR fans several years ago, before Bristol was re-configured, but I think that is the case today. The “preferred line” around Bristol before the progressive banking was installed was on the bottom of the track, single file. Now, you see side-by-side racing, but not nearly the beating, banking and “rattling of cages” that made Bristol famous.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for the drivers, but the reason Bristol became so popular among fans was the wrecking of race cars and the lost patience of the drivers. When is the last time we have seen a “bump and run” to win at Bristol?

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Race finishes at Martinsville have been closer and more exciting than at Bristol in recent years.

The half-mile at Bristol is a bull ring, almost a circle. The half-mile at Martinsville has been described as two drag strips connected with two hair-pin turns, like a giant paper clip. I don’t think Martinsville is a threat to overtake Bristol in terms of popularity any time soon, but the racing is just as good.

Through five races this season, if your name isn’t Kenseth or Busch, you have not won a race. Matt Kenseth swept the first two events at Daytona and California. Kyle Busch won the third race at Las Vegas, while brother Kurt took the checkered flag at Atlanta the next week. And Kyle earned his second win of year at Bristol.

But, despite these three drivers winning all five races, none sit atop the points standings. That designation belongs to Jeff Gordon. With four top-10 finishes and three top-fives, Gordon leads Kurt Busch by 76 points, a pretty hefty gap at this point in the season.

This week would have been the first race that drivers outside the top 35 in 2009 owners points would have had to qualify on speed. But Mother Nature took care of that scenario as qualifying was rained out and the field was set by positions 1-43.

That is good news for drivers like Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield, drivers that desperately needed to make this race. Of the four drivers to not make the race, none were competing on a regular basis.

If you look at historical performance over the last 12 races here, it’s Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and everyone else. The two Hendrick drivers have won nine of the previous 12 races with Johnson winning four of the last five.

This race also marks the 25th anniversary of Rick Hendrick’s first win as a NASCAR owner. In 1984, as owner of All-Star Racing, Rick Hendrick won at Martinsville with Geoff Bodine behind the wheel of the No. 5 car. And that was the beginning of a 25-year career with eight championships and 175 wins. Think about that, Hendrick teams have averaged seven wins per year for 25 years. Doesn’t hurt when Jeff Gordon has nearly half of those wins. Add another this weekend. Gordon is my pick to win Sunday.