|ESPN.com: Sprint Cup||[Print without images]|
AP Photo/Steve Helber
The Sprint Cup Series season has five races in the books, and one manufacturer hasn't sniffed Victory Lane yet.
The odds-on favorite for that dishonor in the preseason would have been Dodge, but Kurt Busch won at Atlanta in a Penske Charger. Matt Kenseth put Ford on the board right away with wins at Daytona and California, and Kyle Busch is carrying the Toyota flag with a pair of wins in the past three races and who knows how many more ahead.
What's missing from that picture? Yes, Chevrolet.
If that sounds strange, it should. The winner of the six consecutive manufacturer titles hasn't gone this long at the start of a season without a win since 2002, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Talladega, the ninth race on the calendar.
Fortunately for the bowtie brigade, the calendar turns this weekend to Martinsville, Va., a Chevy playground and, specifically, a Hendrick Motorsports fortress.
Chevy has won 10 of the past 12 races on the half-mile bullring, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson claiming nine of them. Johnson has been particularly good there lately with four wins in five races, including the memorable battle two springs ago when he traded paint with Gordon right up to the end.
Gordon, of course, is up to 45 races in his winless streak (though he's done everything but win this year while leading the points). Johnson has yet to reach his championship stride, although he finished a better-than-usual third at Bristol this past weekend.
But at Martinsville Speedway, both are excellent, turning 500 laps into an almost peaceful Sunday drive. That's what it takes to win in a seemingly chaotic setting.
"From an observer's vantage point, it's probably just one constant flow of cars. But for me, it's just that one, two or three cars ahead of me that I'm focusing on," Gordon said. "You get into such a rhythm and such a zone here, it's amazing on how you block out how much traffic there really is. I don't even think about there being 40 cars on the track."
Martinsville is an acquired taste -- if you like racing around two light poles at the opposite end of a tight parking lot, you'd like this place -- with nothing to help keep speeds up like Bristol's high banks. Look for the glowing-red brake rotors as cars enter the turns, distinctive to Martinsville just like its red hot dogs.
"There's something about the flatter tracks and the braking technique and how you get the car to turn there that works for me," Johnson said. "The car setup and the crew chief style play into that as well. It's kind of a combination of things."
Although this is the second short-track race in two weeks, Martinsville is nothing like Bristol. The banking and shapes are different, and in Bristol's case, the racing has evolved in the past couple of years with multiple racing lanes opening (an evolution that hasn't pleased some fans). Martinsville hasn't changed in 60 years.
"The way you approach both of them, the way you drive them and the way you set up the cars for them, there's actually no similarities at all," said Brian Vickers, 14th in points for Red Bull Racing. "They are absolutely, completely different."
What could be different this week is a Chevy finally winning in 2009.
Kyle Busch: On one hand, Shrub refuses to wear the black hat for which most people have fitted him. (He said the boos from the stands aren't a motivator.) Then again, he's not above throwing out a jab at the white hat. (Earnhardt Jr. will be No. 1 in merchandise forever, Busch said, but he'll take No. 1 on the track.)
The guy is still an enigma, but his hat fits. See Saturday, when he made the crew fetch his Nationwide car out of Turn 3 after a win-costing pit miscue, then Sunday, when all was forgotten in the No. 18 camp after a win at Bristol.
There's never a dull moment. But through five weekends this season, there also consistently has been a winning moment.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Clint Bowyer: Only one driver in Cup has finished in the top five the past two seasons and is in the top five in points after Sunday's race at Bristol. It's not Jimmie Johnson, who's ninth this season. Not Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch or Jeff Gordon, either. Believe it or not, it's Bowyer.
The guy just hangs around, first in the No. 07 Richard Childress Chevy and now in the No. 33. This year, he has led a grand total of nine laps, all in a second-place run at Las Vegas. But he's third in points with three top-six finishes and none worse than 19th.
With just two career wins, he can't be considered an elite driver, but some elite drivers haven't had his consistency lately, either.
The rookies: Joey Logano and Scott Speed aren't waging much of a race for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. Right now they're simply trying to race every Sunday. "Sliced Bread" is 34th in owners' points, and Speed is 36th, meaning only one will have a relaxing day of qualifying at Martinsville. Come next week at Fort Worth, maybe both will. Or maybe they won't.
Speed, in the No. 82 Red Bull Toyota, doesn't have a top-20 or a lead-lap finish. Logano hasn't rekindled old memories of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota with four bottom-half finishes and a 13th at Las Vegas.
"It's been disheartening. But I think we're locked in a battle. It's part of pro sport," said Joe Gibbs, talking about Logano and sounding as though he also could have been speaking for Speed.