Banging at Martinsville could shake up Chase

Jeff Burton is atop the Nextel Cup standings with five races left in the season, but his brother will be getting just as much attention at Martinsville Speedway.

"I'm just not a big fan, mostly because it's so slow and there's no room to pass. Racing at Martinsville is kind of like racing around two cones out in a parking lot somewhere."
-- Matt Kenseth

Somehow, you figure that's just fine with Jeff, who hardly seeks out the spotlight in the first place. And with Ward Burton having made his first race since late in the 2004 season -- he qualified 35th -- such a fuss is understandable.

Ward had to qualify for the Subway 500 because Morgan-McClure Motorsports' No. 4 Chevrolet sits outside the top 35 in owner points. He's simply excited to be back in a car after all this time.

"I've been gone long enough, and now I'm ready to get back behind the wheel and race," Ward Burton said. "I know there have been some changes since I last drove, with the tires used and different setups, but that just means I have to step up and get used to those changes faster and be ready to race this weekend.

"I'm anxious to get back in the car and be on track again and get back out there with our fans. I appreciate the opportunity from Larry [McClure] and Morgan-McClure to get back in the car, and I'm looking forward to having a good time with them at Martinsville."

Burton has yet to decide whether he wants to return full time in 2007 if the right opportunity presents itself, but Martinsville will serve as a good audition.

Jeff Burton, meanwhile, has a championship to go win, so don't expect him to have much time for sentimentality about his older brother's return.

Even without the extenuating circumstances surrounding the brothers this time, any trip to Martinsville is a big weekend for the natives of South Boston, Va. Each has run well at the .526-mile track described as resembling a paper clip.

A past winner of the track's famed Grandfather Clock that doubles as the trophy, Jeff Burton confirms that it's one of his favorite venues.

"It's a huge challenge and a very difficult and demanding physical race. It's a demanding mental day, as well," Burton said. "It's one of the most unique racetracks we go to. It's obviously very tight and real easy to get caught up in a wreck and just as easy to cause a wreck."

That's just what happened to Burton in April, leaving him 33rd that afternoon. A similar finish this time around undoubtedly would prove costly unless his closest pursuers in the Chase for the Nextel Cup all have problems of their own.

Burton doesn't want to rely on others' misfortune but knows bad things can happen to anyone at Martinsville.

"With how hard we use the brakes, the potential for mechanical problems or getting into a wreck, we could have some Chase drivers who don't get through Martinsville," Burton said. "I think Martinsville, like Talladega, stands out as a race which has the potential to have an impact on a lot of Chase contenders. There's no question that any race we go to, people will have trouble, but I think Martinsville is a race that has the potential for a lot of people to have trouble."

Burton could benefit if he makes it through unscathed and second-place Matt Kenseth has one of his usual Martinsville runs. Just 45 points out of the lead, Kenseth has just one top-five and three top-10s in 13 starts there.

Not surprisingly, Kenseth's thoughts on racing there vary widely from Burton's.

"I'm just not a big fan, mostly because it's so slow and there's no room to pass. Racing at Martinsville is kind of like racing around two cones out in a parking lot somewhere," Kenseth said. "That being said, we have to stay focused on the job at hand, and that is trying to score a top-10 finish this weekend.

"This is the race that I knew would be the toughest for us going into the Chase. Some people point to Talladega, but I've always pointed to Martinsville as the real wild card for us. If we can get a good finish this weekend, I think we'll be in good position to make a run at the title because we've had success at the remaining tracks."

Martinsville also is a tough place for Kevin Harvick, who enters the Subway 500 third in points, 89 out of the lead. In his 10 Cup starts there, he has just three top-10 finishes.

On the bright side, Harvick doesn't have to worry about racing in the Busch Series car this weekend as that series has its last off weekend. That gives Harvick even more time to reflect on the Busch championship he clinched last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

If he can pass Kenseth and Burton and hold off the rest of the field, he'd become the first driver to win both championships in the same season.

"It's nice to get that Busch championship locked up. We're excited about it, proud of what we've done this year, and hopefully we can do what we need to do on the Cup side in the next five weeks," Harvick said. "It's been a pretty full plate to achieve everything we've set out to do in the Busch car, and it's pretty gratifying that we set a plan, stuck to it and it all worked out. Obviously, to try to get the Nextel Cup championship is our main focus. That's what we all really, really want."

Fourth-place Mark Martin runs well at Martinsville, even though he doesn't typically enjoy racing there. He has won there twice, most recently in 2000, and has 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 39 starts.

Who knows how good he'd be there if he actually liked the place?

"They keep reminding me that I have a pretty good record there," Martin said of Martinsville. "I love Pocono and have never won there, so I guess it doesn't matter that much if you love a track or not.

"Martinsville can be physically demanding, and a lot of times you leave there feeling really worn down. Martinsville has always been a real challenge for me because, in the end, it just doesn't fit with my driving style. But, we ran OK there in the spring and we like the car we are taking back this time."

Tony Stewart ran more than OK there in April, earning his first win of the season. It wasn't enough to help him ride a roller-coaster season into the Chase, but it does make him a favorite this time around.

Stewart once suggested filling the facility with water and stocking it with bass, but he has come to appreciate the track. Improvements to the garage and the track helped change his perspective, but he also has been more successful once he realized that the more he babied the car early in the race, the better it would be at the end of the day.

"Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like Martinsville," Stewart said. "Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient -- out of necessity, basically.

"You try to stay off the brakes as much as possible. You always hear the crew chief talking about floating the car into the corner, and what they mean by that is instead of driving it really deep into the corner and using a lot of brake pressure, the theory is to lift a little earlier and use less brake pressure. You'll end up running virtually the same lap time as you would if you drove hard into the corner."

Any driver who can do that most of the day, Stewart said, likely will have the brakes required for a battle in the final 100 laps.

Fifth in points, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth at Martinsville in April with a battered Chevrolet. He knows a better qualify effort could help him avoid some of the early-race mayhem that's often the norm on a short track.

If he can save his brakes and pull out another solid finish, he's hoping to gain ground on Burton.

"We're still in it, and we've got good tracks coming up. Jeff has been at this a long time, but I don't look at him as indestructible," Earnhardt Jr. said. "If he has a mistake or even a couple of bad runs, it will completely shake up the points.

"In the first two races of the Chase, we finished 13th and 21st, and that put us 100 points out. We didn't blow up or anything. It was just a case of a good car getting mediocre finishes. So, anything can happen."

And it usually does at Martinsville.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.