Martinsville, Virginia, the sleepy little town nestled on U.S. Route 220 about 50 miles south of Roanoke, Virginia always invigorates the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. The spring race usually comes after the excitement of the high banks of Bristol, but the fall race—the only short track in the playoff system known as The Chase—comes after a series of boring race tracks. Kansas Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, and sadly, Charlotte Motor Speedway have been staging sleep inducing races lately. Not so with Martinsville. Sunday’s race had enough controversy and banging to make us forget those early snoozers and look forward to the next race, the direct opposite of the paperclip shaped track, the meat grinder at Talladega.
The excitement started early in the week when Kasey Kahne was let go from Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne had refused to get back into his No. 9 Budweiser Ford after repairs were made at Charlotte the week before. He was headed for Red Bull Racing next year anyway, and what was to happen next was more than surprising. Adding to the drama of a Chase race on a half-mile track was the possible demise of Richard Petty Motorsports. Petty is a minority investor at the operation, but fans were outraged that one of its heroes name was being given a bad name because major investor George Gillett couldn’t pay his bills, causing Roush Fenway, the supplier of his cars, to repossess them.
The story has been discussed over and over, so I’ll save you that boredom, but when the drivers and crews arrived at Martinsville on Friday, all the talk was about RPM, even though the racing at Martinsville is highly entertaining. Once no one was saying anything, the focus went back to racing as it was meant to be. No cookie cutter tracks, no gas mileage thrillers, and no aero push, making passing impossible. Just beating and banging. And did they ever.
We saw teammates forget they were teammates. I wonder if Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton are still speaking. We saw Jimmie Johnson prove he is human after all. Johnson never led a lap. We saw Kenny Schrader take the lead. We saw Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lead (gasp!) 90 laps and finish seventh. We saw Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch battle and Busch put Gordon out of contention. The race was far more exciting and interesting than the first five Chase races combined. It was a glorious, sunny day and the crowd was good. One wag in the press box said that the officials at Fontana would kill for a crowd like they had at Martinsville. Even with high unemployment in the region, Martinsville, as usual, nearly filled the stands. This begs a question. Why not more short tracks?
NASCAR only has three certified short tracks—Bristol, Richmond, and Martinsville. The rest of the schedule is made up of the 1.5 -2 mile tracks, the one milers at Dover and New Hampshire, and Darlington. Daytona and Talladega are in a separate class. That said, lots of things need to change. A short track would be nice, but the Chase schedule needs to be changed. Darlington and Bristol need to be added.
Still, the racing we saw at Martinsville on Sunday was really racing—the way it was meant to be. Somewhere and at some time, someone decided that bigger was better. I submit for your consideration Sunday, October 24, 2010. It doesn’t get any better than what we saw there.