Race fans stand at the start of the Advance Auto Parts 500 race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., in this April 18, 2004 photo.Midway through the 10-race playoff to determine NASCAR's champion, its premier series heads to the oldest, shortest track on the circuit _ and the place where one misstep can completely take a contender out of the running.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
MARTINSVILLE, Va. Midway through their 10-race playoff, the Nextel Cup contenders are at the shortest and slowest oval on the NASCAR circuit a place four-time series champion Jeff Gordon insists can be as damaging to title hopes as the fastest tracks.
The nearly flat half-mile Martinsville Speedway reminds no one of high-banked and ultra-fast Talladega, but presents its own set of problems.
''At Talladega, everybody talks about avoiding the big one,'' said Gordon, third in the competition among the top 10 racers. ''There, it's one big wreck that collects 17 cars. At Martinsville, it's 17 little wrecks that collect several cars.''
Gordon has firsthand knowledge of the problems a driver might encounter at Martinsville, where he's won three consecutive poles and has five career victories.
It could also have been three straight victories, but Gordon was unlucky in Martinsville's spring race. Running second to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's Chevrolet was damaged by a chunk of concrete that broke loose from the track, and he finished sixth.
Even worse for Gordon, now 74 points behind series leader Kurt Busch and 50 back of Earnhardt, was management's decision to resurface since the last race.
''The new racing surface is smooth with a lot of grip,'' he said. ''But I wish they had waited to make the changes. I thought we had a big edge on the competition.''
Many drivers welcomed the resurfacing, even though some have wondered whether a faster surface will make for a one-groove track with passing virtually nonexistent.
''I'm somewhat fearful of that,'' said Tony Stewart, sixth in the standings. ''But no one will truly know until we all get there and start running on it.''
Two years ago, Busch surprised even himself by winning on the .526-mile oval. In that race, a quick pit stop with 91 laps to go gave him the lead, and taught him that timing and luck are keys to succeeding on the narrow track with extremely tight turns.
''It's going to have the intensity like it always does, but yet the top-10 guys are going to feel that pressure of when to pit and what decisions to make,'' he said.
Unlike larger tracks, where the leaders frequently pit almost in unison, Martinsville's slower speed encourages some to stay out longer to get track position vital to success as the race winds down and the best cars lead the way.
The conditions also put a premium on team performance.
''It's one of those tracks where you can be pretty good and have a bad pit stop and it costs you a lot of track position,'' said Earnhardt, a top-five finisher in each of the last five races here without winning. ''It's hard to get it back, especially with the new surface.''
Complicating that effort, said Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Stewart, is trying to battle back against 42 other cars all trying to win.
''Martinsville is the type of place where if something can happen, then it will happen to somebody, somehow,'' Zipadelli said. ''Plus, tempers and things tend to get stirred up there and it's really easy to get caught up in someone else's mess.
''Hopefully we'll stay fast and just get through it all to get us a good finish.''
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