Which Cup drivers can excel at Martinsville?
Take an inside look at the top drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ahead of this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway(Sunday, April 3, 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 1st, up from second last week, and leads by nine points.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: One top-five finish (third in October 2008) and four top-10s in 13 starts. He finished eighth in both races last year.
LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards is thrilled with his position in the standings. "It's great going into Martinsville as the point leader," Edwards said. "Martinsville is one of those tracks we keep getting better at, and the track is always a challenge. We have had some really good runs there lately, and I feel it's one of those driver's tracks and a win there would mean a lot to me."
LOOKING BACK: Edwards is coming off a sixth-place finish at Fontana. "What an exciting race," he said. "I am really excited for these great fans ... to be able to see that wild of a finish at this race track, which is one of the best race tracks we go to. For our team to come out of here leading the points is big considering how we ran all day. We really weren't that good. Congrats to those guys that battled up front. They put on a good show."
ETC.: Edwards will drive chassis RK-726 at Martinsville. "Martinsville is a demanding track, both physically and mentally," crew chief Bob Osborne said. "It's a difficult place to get the car handling just right, and the driver has to be patient in traffic to save the brakes. It's a very long race, so you can't wear out your brakes in the first half of the race. We'd like to come out of there still leading the points, so we need a good, solid finish at Martinsville this weekend."
39 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 2nd, a gain of two positions, nine points out.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 18 starts. He was fourth in this race last year and 30th in October. He has finished in the top 10 in three of his last four Martinsville starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Newman believes the next stretch of races will turn up the heat on the competitors in the top 10, and that begins at Martinsville. "I think the competition is still really close," Newman said. "That race track is entirely unique to anything else we have on the schedule. I think that, in itself, Martinsville being Martinsville is part of it. The other part of it is the drivers have to really modulate that brake pedal, which is another part of it. You can have the best car there and burn the brakes off of it and finish 35th. I have actually blown two tires out, melted the beads on two tires at one time and blew both of them at the same time, which I thought was pretty cool ... afterward. But, seriously, we've been good there -- we have been really good -- especially on Fridays, and we seem to start off a little slow on Sundays and end up in the top five or top 10. I thought last fall was going to be a good race for us had we not lost a gear because we were leading at the time. I think we have made some pretty big gains to try to catch those guys and surpass them, so I think the No. 39 team is looking forward to getting back to a track that has been really good for us."
LOOKING BACK: Newman continued his hot start to the season with a fifth-place finish at California after leading one time for eight laps. "We had some bad pit stops and Tony Gibson (the crew chief) made a great call staying out," Newman said. "I'm just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Hass Racing giving us the opportunity. Unfortunately, Tony (Stewart) didn't get to finish the way he ran all day, but as long as you finish you still get the points."
ETC.: Newman said the entire team feels confident because of its great start. "I think the biggest part of our confidence isn't necessarily that we are second in points as it is how we got to this point with our performances on the race track," Newman said. "To come to back from some of the things that we have dealt with and to have as good a start is nice, but the confidence of how we work together is ... more exciting than actually being fourth in points because I think we have done much better as a team to get to where we are this year and done what we thought we were capable of the last two years. We just had bad racing luck that put us in a hole that we had to fight out of."
22 KURT BUSCH, Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 3rd after leading last week and is 10 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: One victory (October 2002), two top-fives and four top-10s in 21 starts -- but no top-10s since he was sixth there in October 2005.
LOOKING AHEAD: It's been almost 10 years since Busch drove to victory at Martinsville, and he's ready to end that lengthy streak. "I'll be the first to admit that the Martinsville races have always been so challenging to me, and that goes all the way back through my career," he said. "But ever since Steve Addington came aboard as our crew chief at the beginning of last season, things have really begun to turn for the better. Steve deserves so much credit for rallying the troops every week and having our team's confidence level up for all of these races. I told him when he first joined the team that Martinsville was a weak track for me personally, and he vowed back then that we'd work hard together in changing that. I think we've already made so much progress, but it's a case of the numbers just not showing that."
LOOKING BACK: Busch had his first subpar finish of the season with a 17th place at Fontana. "It was a tough weekend," Busch said. "We unloaded slow and never found speed. The short practice on Friday (because of rain) really hurt, and we couldn't find the balance that we needed to be fast. We threw everything we could today at the track -- bars, air pressures, spring rubbers, you name it. The car never reacted to the track. With a big two-mile oval like Auto Club, carrying speed through these big sweeping corners is critical to be fast. We struggled getting over the bumps and getting our car to rotate through the corners like we needed. It's disappointing because we wanted to come here and extend our point lead and gain some momentum heading into Martinsville next weekend. We went in the wrong direction. It's a long season -- a marathon, not a sprint. We'll put this behind us."
ETC.: Busch was asked last week how important it is to be physically fit as a race driver. "It's good that we wear drivers' suits; it's good to cover up if we're fit or not," Busch said. "You have to get out there and do the cardiovascular and do the strength training just to make sure that you're not falling behind. Every part of the car is gone over with a fine-toothed comb these days to find hundredths of a second, and driver fatigue can fit into that. I think drivers know that they need to be their best, and a nutritional regimen as well as physical training and cardiovascular is key as well. It's different from years past ... the fun factor was definitely higher in the '70s and '80s with guys going out and having beers all night long and coming to the track the next day and focusing through it. You don't see that as much anymore. The group is very committed. Everybody is trying to be their best in the race car at all times."
18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 4th, a gain of two positions, 11 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Five top-five and six top-10 finishes in 12 starts. He was 22nd last spring and fourth in October -- the latter was his second consecutive fourth-place finish in the October Martinsville race. He has two top-fives in his last three starts there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch continues to see signs of progress at the short track. "I'm getting better at Martinsville, so watch out this weekend with our Camry," Busch said. "I think Denny Hamlin has that place pretty figured out. He's going to be hard to beat there, that's for sure. But with my success at Bristol and Richmond, it's been fun and I feel like Martinsville has been getting better for us. We're getting there. Thanks to Dave (Rogers, the crew chief), we've really worked hard at that. We kind of feel like we have a baseline -- a better baseline that we can unload with and be faster off the truck. That's a big benefit for us. As far as having the same three guys winning all the short-track races in recent years, you know, just look at the competition today. At Bristol, there were some good cars that raced up front and battled up front at times during the race. They didn't quite have it when it mattered most, to keep themselves up front and in position to win the race. That's what we did and, probably what you see from the three guys who do that every time, it's that they're just a little bit better at being able to do that."
LOOKING BACK: After winning Saturday's Nationwide Series race, Busch backed it up with a third-place in Sunday's Cup race at Auto Club Speedway. He led five times for a race-high 151 laps Sunday. It was his ninth top-10 finish in 14 races at that track. "We gave the race away today, unfortunately," Busch said. "We seemed to be losing the handle a little bit two runs from the end and especially that last set of tires. We just didn't quite have what it took in order to keep the front end under the car and then the back end under the car on the exits of the corner. I just couldn't get the right speed that I needed. The guys did a great job this weekend. The Camry was good from when we unloaded the second one Friday. I can't say enough about the guys on pit road and the guys back at the shop. They did a great job for us and got us in position, and just, unfortunately, I couldn't get the job done today. I didn't have what it took there at the end. Today was a really, really good race for us anyways. We had a really good race car. I can't thank the guys enough -- everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing, chassis shop, bodies -- it was a whole effort this weekend. Especially the team guys this weekend, being able to prepare the backup car and get it out on the race track in time to get some qualifying laps and in enough time to have a good race car yesterday in practice and then again today. It was just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing all in one that we weren't able to seal the deal today. It just came down to the last few laps there with Jimmie (Johnson) first and then Kevin (Harvick) got into it, too, with us. You ask a little bit more from your race car at the last moments; it doesn't have anything left to give. You're essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. I couldn't get any more out of the car. That was it. It would push, get loose. That was all we had."
ETC.: Busch is tied with Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty for most Cup wins by the age of 26. "I beat them to 25, but they beat me to 26," Busch said. "I didn't win enough this year from May 2 (his birthday) to May 2. There are still some opportunities for some more wins. Essentially that's what it tells me. That's what I read into it when you say I was the highest winner to 25 but now I'm not to 26. It's interesting. It has all come at such a young age, but there have been guys who have been here at a young age, too, who have been just as successful. You say the guys -- (Richard) Petty and (Jeff) Gordon -- and (Jimmie) Johnson is another one of those guys. He wasn't quite as young, but when you look at his career and how long he's been here from 2002 -- his rookie year to where he is now -- going on 10 seasons, 54 wins or whatever it's been. He's a guy you look at and say, ‘Man, he's done a lot in a short period of time, and five championships and everything else,' never finishing outside the top five or 10 in points, or whatever. He's a guy everybody would like to be if they had their choice and could pick somebody to follow after. We'll see how things go here in the next few weeks and next few years and through my career, but all in all it's been good so far. There's plenty more time for it to grow."
Prerace coverage from Kansas begins June 5 at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 5th, up two spots and 14 points out of first.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: This is perhaps Johnson's best track. He has six victories, 13 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s in 18 starts -- the only time he has ever finished out of the top-10 was in his first race there. He was ninth last spring and fifth last October and had nine straight top-five finishes from October 2005 to October 2009.
LOOKING AHEAD: After nearly winning Sunday, Johnson has reason to be excited about a return to Martinsville even though he didn't do as well as normal there last year. "The spring race did not go as we had hoped and the fall race, we ran really well although I guess we didn't lead a lap," Johnson said. "I remember the 29 (Kevin Harvick), the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and us racing real hard all day. I feel like we're close. We probably don't have the dominant car that we've had there in years past, or other teams have caught us. I feel like I should have been second or third, but I don't recall the end of that run and why we ended up sixth. The track has been good to us and we just need to find a little something there -- a little bit goes a long way on that small of a track like that. For me, it's just a fun place to race. I encourage friends and family to come to that track and watch. It's a great snapshot of NASCAR in the old days where you're right on top of the action, whether you're on pit road or in the grandstands. I just personally enjoy the challenge that track brings, and I think it's a cool venue. Outside of that I guess I'm a competitor, and every time I'm in the car I want to win and I want to be as fast as I can."
LOOKING BACK: Johnson led two times for three laps and was the leader into turn 3 on the final lap before Kevin Harvick was able to loosen him up just enough to move him out of the way and win the race. Johnson finished second. It was Johnson's 13th top-10 finish in 17 races at Auto Club Speedway and his third top-10 in 2011. "It reminded me of last year in the spring race," Johnson said. "I just didn't hold him off that time. Those tires made the difference. I knew he was coming, they said he was coming. If I could have got by the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) maybe a lap sooner that might have been enough to give him the margin I needed. It was just way loose. I was driving my butt off just trying to keep this Chevrolet up front, but it didn't pan out. I hate losing it coming off of (turn) 4 like that, but we did everything we could today. We had a great race. We made our car a lot better all day long, so I'm really proud about that. There was one time off of (turn) 2 I was chasing the No. 18 and I got crossed up and smacked the fence. I was dead sideways all day. Even when I was tight I was still loose. I'm just glad it turned out to be a decent day."
ETC.: Johnson assessed his start to the 2011 season. "I think we're in good shape," he said. "We're not where we want to be. I think we still have a lot of room for improvement from the speed in the cars, a little bit on pit road -- although if we hadn't had that issue late in the race at Bristol, if you look at our average pit stop time, even including that -- it's the best we've had as the 48 team. Those guys, the stops leading up to that last one were in the 12s. They did an amazing job. We have speed on pit road. We're finding the speed with the car, and I think that if I can rate us -- we've done maybe in the B or B-minus range right now. Not bad with all that we've changed over the offseason. We have a lot of room to grow."
14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 6th, a loss of three positions and 17 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Two wins, eight top-five finishes and 13 top-10s in 24 starts. He was 26th last April and 24th in October but before that had consecutive top-five finishes.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart hated Martinsville when he first competed on it but has grown to like the unique short track. "It's still that old short-track feel," Stewart said. "That's what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year, and it's the only place that races like this. We've got two half-mile tracks that we race on. This one's quite a bit different than Bristol, and that's what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It's racing the way we all grew up racing. I think the shock technology (is one of the things that have changed the most), and I think it's like anywhere else where you're still trying to get the cars to do the same thing. You still have to make them rotate and, more so at Martinsville than anywhere else ... you're asking the car to accelerate a lot off the corner. That's the hardest thing. You can always get it to do one or the other, but it's hard to get them to do both. I think that's why Martinsville is so difficult. But there are things that drivers figure out that they like and they feel that they like, and when you find that you normally have something to shoot for each time you go on the race track. But the technology does change with it, I believe."
LOOKING BACK: Stewart finished 13th at Fontana after leading four times for 11 laps. "We're not really sure what happened," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "Obviously, we're pleased with the way the car ran for the majority of the race, but it's pretty disappointing that we ended up where we did. For whatever reason, we couldn't get going in the laps after the final restart, and it cost us a ton of positions."
ETC.: Stewart credits preparation by the team for having him in the top 10 in the standings. "It's not hard to prepare for because that's what these guys do week in and week out, and they've done it every year," Stewart said. "These teams have always had this kind of schedule, and while it's not hard from the preparation standpoint, sometimes it can be hard to be good at all these tracks. But that's why they call it racing."
27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 7th, down two spots, 23 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Not a single top-10 in seven starts. His best finish was 13th last October.
LOOKING AHEAD: Off to the best start of his career, Menard is confident of having his best finish at Martinsville. "I've struggled at Martinsville in the past," he said. "Last year, we actually had two really good races, and the fall of 2009, we ran in the top 10 until a pit stop hurt us. The last three times that I've been there, I've felt like I had a top-10 car. Things happen at Martinsville that are outside of your control. It's kind of like a restrictor-plate track -- there's a lot of beating and banging, people not expecting to do it or trying to do it. It's just apparent with the chain reactions and everyone checking up. You'll get fenders tore up. You'll have broken rear gears from wheel spin on exit. There are a lot of things that can happen. You just have to try to minimize all of that and stay out of trouble as best as you can. It's a very mental race and not as physical as you think. You drive into the corner and you kind lean against your seat. There's not a whole lot of load, but it's very mental. You're always checking your mirrors to see if anyone is going to dive bomb you, you are constantly trying to protect your inside, and if you get shuffled to the outside, you're going to get freight-trained. It's very mental, just like a restrictor-plate race track."
LOOKING BACK: Menard's 16th-place finish kept him in the top 10 in the standings.
ETC.: Menard's team continues to try to figure out how the new fueling system has affected the time of pit stops this season. "We saw that come into play in Vegas," Menard said. "The last pit stop was green-flag and getting a full load of fuel to get to the end and that's what it really comes down to ... how much fuel do you need to make it to the end? For us we stayed on pit road about two and a half seconds too long, just making sure we had enough fuel. That hurt us in the end. The years before you could always go on the tire changer, the tire changer would be the last guy, the fueler would beat him so you could see it in your mirror where the tire changers were and kind of anticipate it. With the fueling now you can't really anticipate it. The tire changer backs away and the fueler is still plugged in so you can't really tell when the jack stand drops so it makes it difficult to anticipate when you're done. But at the end of the day you need as much fuel as will get you to the end."
42 JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 8th, his same position as last week, 26 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: One top-five and two top-10 finishes in eight starts. He was 36th last spring and 19th last October.
LOOKING AHEAD: Montoya is confident that he will be a contender at the Virginia short track. "Martinsville is not as hard as people think," Montoya said. "You race and if somebody races hard, you're going to race hard. It's a place you don't want to wreck anybody because payback is really bad there. We have to have respect for each other out there. The Target team keeps doing an amazing job every week, and we're hoping to keep that same momentum going at Martinsville and walk out of there in one piece. It doesn't take you (too long to learn it). It is go, brake, turn, go, brake, turn. Is that a good description? To tell you the truth, the first couple of times you go there, it is hard because it is a lot slower than anything you've done and because you are going so slow and it is so flat, the car slides around. It is more like a road course. It is in between a road course and an oval. For me, personally, it is not that hard. Just have to make sure the car rolls through the center and put the power down. That is all that matters."
LOOKING BACK: Montoya started on the pole and led two times for seven laps before finishing 10th. "The Chevy was good on the short runs but got tight the longer we ran," Montoya said. "Brian (Pattie, the crew chief) and the crew worked on the car all day and made some good calls. The goal was for a top-10 finish and that's what we got. I'm pretty happy."
ETC.: Montoya admits luck has played a role in his start to the season. "Last year we had the pace," Montoya said. "You look at my numbers last year and averages with where we were running and we were pretty good. At the mile-and-a-half we struggled last year this year mile-and-a-half we seem to have the car a lot better. At the short track we are still pretty good. I think everybody is doing a better job as well. It's like when (Brad) Keselowski wrecked in Daytona, I had blue on the side of the car and didn't even feel it. We've been that close. Last week when they all wrecked, we got hit from behind and everything is spun. It didn't really do a major thing to the car. We've been in the right place at the right time. I think that makes a big difference. I think everybody is really positive about it and everybody seems to be in a really good mood about it."
29 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 9th, a gain of six spots after his victory Sunday, 30 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: One top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 19 starts. He was 35th last March and third in October.
LOOKING AHEAD: It's hard to believe that Harvick has never won at Martinsville. He hopes to change that this season. "I think as you look at Martinsville, the past finishes haven't reflected how our cars have run," Harvick said. "Last year for both races we had really good cars. We led a bunch of laps and got a finish we thought we were capable of getting in the second race. ... For us, it's a fun race track. It's kind of our home race track, I guess you could say. It's so close to the shops, and you end up having a lot of people from the shops come and watch. It's just one of those places that you have to race all day, and you have to try to keep your track position, and all the parts, pieces and fenders on it. It's a race track that I really enjoy running at. Sooner or later, we're going to win a race there because we've run well there for years."
LOOKING BACK: Harvick won the Auto Club 400, the first time he has driven to victory in a Cup car at Fontana. He did it in daring fashion by tapping leader Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet just enough to loosen it up on the final lap -- the only lap of the race that Harvick led. It was his 15th career Cup win in 363 starts, his first win of 2011 and his third top-10 finish this season. "Those guys (Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson) started racing and they got side-by-side and we were able to pull up in there," Harvick said. "The more cycles that got on our tires, the better off we were. But I was really nervous about that last call staying out, but it all worked out in our favor and we were able to make up ground. Well, we had them all beat last year here and I gave it away. All these guys did a great job on pit road and Gil (Martin, the crew chief) made the right call. I was like, when I saw those guys pit at the end, 'I said, man, we might be in deep trouble.' But we held those guys off and our car just kept going."
ETC.: In addition to being a Cup driver, Harvick also owns a Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series team and believes his truck program is in pretty good shape. "I'm pretty happy with our truck program," he said. "I think it's gone well. Obviously, with the weeks of racing coming up or back to more racing for them is going to make them better as they get a few of the kinks worked out. It's just hard for them at the beginning of the season as you're only racing one week on and a couple weeks off, one week on, three weeks off. Once they get going, they are going to be really good. They've done a good job so far."
17 MATT KENSETH, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 10th, up three spots, 30 points behind the leader.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Two top-five and six top-10 finishes in 22 starts. He was 18th last March and 15th in October and has finished out of the top 13 in his last four Martinsville starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: When it comes to the numbers, Kenseth realizes he needs to do better at this track. "Martinsville is probably not our best track, but, statistically, it's probably not our worst, either," Kenseth said. "It's just one that I get aggravated at and probably don't use my head as much as I should at times. I think it's more of a Matt thing trying to be patient and not let my emotions get the best of me. You can never get away from anybody, it feels like, so it can get frustrating. There's just not a lot of room to work sometimes, and you're always either getting run into, it seems like, or running into somebody."
LOOKING BACK: Kenseth's fourth-place finish moves him into the top 10 in the standings. "The last two weeks Jimmy (Fennig, the crew chief) and these guys have made some great adjustments and had our Ford the best it has been all day at the end of the race, which is important. It is a good day for us. You are always greedy and want more. I was the first guy on tires and I didn't do probably as good a job as I needed to on the restart. It just took a while to get there."
ETC.: At Martinsville, Kenseth will drive the same car he raced at Phoenix in February -- RK-725. "There's always a lot of rubbing and racing for position when we race at Martinsville Speedway, and that's just because it's a great typical short track," Fennig said. "Qualifying is really important at short tracks as well as having a car that drives well in the turns. Track position is really important since you don't have the long straightaways to be able to make passes like we would at longer tracks, so we'll make sure that our No. 17 Ford turns well in the center of the turns and that it has good grip off the turns in order to race down the short straightaways."
4 KASEY KAHNE, Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, up one spot, 30 points out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Only two top-10 finishes in 14 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne made his first start for Red Bull last October at Martinsville. "Getting those five races under our belt was a really good thing," said Kahne. "I think that is why we have started the year off so well. We didn't run that well at Martinsville, but I know we'll be much better this time around."
LOOKING BACK: After struggling for most of the race, Kahne decided to try something that was working for teammate Brian Vickers, and it paid off big time as Kahne rallied to finish ninth. "The car just wouldn't turn," said Kahne. "It wouldn't turn for the first 150 laps (of the 200-lap event), and then we made some air-pressure adjustments that our teammate ... it was working pretty good for the 83. We kind of followed them, and it made the car a lot better." It was Kahne's second straight ninth-place finish.
ETC.: Kahne calls Martinsville "a great little track. It's different, it's nice to go those type of tracks once in a while and switch it up. We'll see what tire we're on there. I think the tire makes a huge difference is how the race is and what kind of show we have. If we're on a good tire and things work out, it'll be a good race."
88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, a drop of three positions, but is only one point out of the top 10 and 31 out of the lead.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Eight top-fives in 22 starts, including second in the fall of 2008. Finished seventh last fall after leading 90 laps.
LOOKING AHEAD: Earnhardt said he likes "Martinsville a lot. There's something about trying to get around the corner of that place that's a lot of fun, and it's just an interesting race track. Take a good car there, qualify rather well, use good pit strategy, manage a good race and you'll put yourself in position for a competitive finish. That's how you short-track race."
LOOKING BACK: Earnhardt rallied in the final half of the race to finish 12th at California. "It was fun, but I've got to qualify better," said Earnhardt, who started 30th. "We were faster than the 16 (Greg Biffle) and the 42 (Juan Pablo Montoya) at the end. We were faster than both of them and faster than probably two or three more cars in front of them. Just didn't have enough laps to get by them. We finally found what we needed to help me with the car. It was just a little bit too late."
ETC.: Earnhardt is pleased with the consistency his team is showing so far in 2011. "We're a top-10 team," said Earnhardt. "We're doing pretty good. I like the consistency. That's something I've never really had. This is the most consistent I've ever been in my whole career. So that's a good thing. I think the team's pretty good. I've got to do a better job helping them put a car on the track for qualifying that's going to get us in the top 15 for qualifying. You're really not helping yourself starting races in 30th. We have really good race cars and don't want to be doing that."
CUT-OFF FOR "CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP"
56 MARTIN TRUEX JR., Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, a loss of three positions, but only 10 points back of 10th place.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Finished fifth last spring to give him two top-10 finishes in 10 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Truex said the team is "scratching our heads a little bit trying to figure out what we are missing. The last two weeks we have started off extremely strong and then faded in the second half of the race. We'll continue to work hard to come up with a solution. Once we figure it out -- and I hope it's Martinsville -- the NAPA team is going to be in really, really good shape."
LOOKING BACK: It was another very frustrating day for Truex. After running in the top five for most of the first half of the race and leading once for one lap, Truex struggled big time during the final 100 laps as he ended up 21st. "We were really strong early, and it was just between us and Kyle Busch," Truex said. "For some reason, our car's balance changes and we can't seem to find what it needs. It's tough. Today we saw so much potential, but in the end it didn't work out for us."
ETC.: Truex has won only one Cup race in his career, and he admits he did not think it would be as hard as it has been to add to that total. "Obviously, the last few years have been pretty difficult," he said. "The first couple went pretty well and we fought for wins a lot. Then we went through two really crazy transition years (at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then Earnhardt Ganassi Racing). Then last year was a new deal for me (with Michael Waltrip Racing). It's been hard for me because I've won championships and I've won races in everything I've ever run."
5 MARK MARTIN, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, only 10 points out of the top 10, after losing three spots.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Two wins and 24 top-10 finishes in 46 starts, including second last October. His last win there was on April 9, 2000.
LOOKING AHEAD: Martin will be making his 800th career start this weekend. "First, let me say that it's cool that my 800th start is coming at a track like Martinsville," said Martin. "It's one of those good, old-school race tracks, and that's pretty fitting. The biggest difference at Martinsville over other race tracks, competition-wise, is that brakes are really, really important there. It's a unique challenge because the corners are so sharp and the straightaways are fairly long for a little race track."
LOOKING BACK: It was an up-and-down day for Martin at Auto Club Speedway. After struggling early in the race, Martin rebounded to run in the top 10 for more than 100 laps. But he ran into major handling problems late in the race and faded to 20th.
ETC.: Martin believes that Martinsville is a "race track where you can't make up much as a driver. You've got to pretty much take what the car will give you. If you try to get more out of it, that will just hurt you. So from that respect, it can be kind of frustrating."
43 AJ ALLMENDINGER, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, up one spot, 20 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Only one top-10 finish in seven starts. Was 12th last fall.
LOOKING AHEAD: Allmendinger said "Martinsville has been a decent track for us the past couple of years. It's racing where you have to get a rhythm going. It's definitely a track that's fun if you get your car to handle well. If you can get in a good rhythm, it makes the laps go by quick. We need to have a good finish at Martinsville this weekend and gain some more points."
LOOKING BACK: Allmendinger rallied in the final nine laps to finish 14th at Fontana. "We changed four tires and made a big adjustment there in the last caution, and the car was a lot better," said Allmendinger, who was 22nd when the green came out for the final time. "We were able to make up a lot of ground in those final nine laps. A really great comeback for this team."
ETC.: Crew chief Mike Shiplett said the pit road at Martinsville is one of the most challenging on the Sprint Cup Series. "It's pretty narrow, so getting on and off you have to be careful and make sure you don't make any mistakes there," said Shiplett. "Pit road is also very long and the speed limit is only 35 miles per hour, so if you have to pit under the green flag you will lose three laps before you get back out on the track. That is a tough deal."
24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, 27 points out of the top 10, but an improvement of three spots over last week.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Seven wins, seven poles and 29 top-10 finishes in 36 starts. His streak of 15 top-nine finishes was snapped last October when he finished 20th. He finished third last spring.
LOOKING AHEAD: "As you can probably guess, I'm really looking forward to the trip to Martinsville this weekend," said Gordon. "Because we're capable of winning Martinsville this year. You just have to be careful not to overheat your brakes and use up your equipment."
LOOKING BACK: After practicing well all weekend, Gordon thought he had an excellent chance of winning his second race of the season. But after an all-night rain, Gordon never found the handle on his Chevrolet and ended up 18th. "The track was totally different today, and we just never got the balance the way we wanted," said Gordon.
ETC.: Gordon believes the communication lines between him and crew chief Alan Gustafson are still evolving. "Although we won earlier this year at Phoenix, Alan and I have only worked together for five races and a few tests," said Gordon. "We're still learning (each other). When we get to the track (this week), hopefully I'll provide the necessary information about the car so that he can make the right adjustment during practice and during the race. If I do, we can have a real good weekend."
33 CLINT BOWYER, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, a jump of seven positions, 35 points outside the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. Finished seventh in last year's spring race.
LOOKING AHEAD: Bowyer said he has "gotten a lot better at Martinsville. I needed to. It was one track that I was terrible at when I first started. You must have a lot of discipline at that facility, and there are a lot of things that you do different at a track like that. It was a big learning curve for me. I feel like I've come a long way, and our equipment have also come a long way at Martinsville."
LOOKING BACK: After starting 17th, it took Bowyer only 24 laps to move into the top five. He ran in the top 10 for the rest of the race, leading once for one lap as he ended up seventh for his fourth straight top-10 finish at Fontana. "I felt like we had a car that was capable of winning the race and we were, actually, gaining on the top three until the last caution with 14 laps to go," said Bowyer. "We just got too loose on the last restart but ended up with a solid top 10. It was a good points day and a great way to bounce back after last weekend in Bristol."
ETC.: On Monday, Bowyer strapped on a hard hat and gripped a gold-tipped shovel as he helped break ground for the Bowyer Community Center in his hometown of Emporia, Kan. The $1 million, 6,500-square-foot building is scheduled to open in September. It will be paid for through Bowyer's 79 Fund -- named for the number of his first dirt car. "We called it a community building," said Bowyer. "That's what I want it to be. I want everybody to be able to use this, be proud of it. We put a lot of money into it, a lot of hard work, a lot of design work to make sure it fit everybody's needs, and it will be a great asset to the community."
47 BOBBY LABONTE, Toyota
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, four spots down and 36 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: One win (April 2002) and 13 top-10 finishes in 36 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Labonte points out, "Martinsville has been a track where I have excelled, and I'm confident our short-track program is going to be strong. JTG Daugherty Racing ran well there last year. Actually, I tested for them before they went to Martinsville when Marcos (Ambrose) qualified second. I drove a car similar to what they had and I was like, 'Man, this thing is awesome.' I'm really looking forward to this race."
LOOKING BACK: There were only 15 laps to go when Labonte's car slammed into the turn 2 wall and his right front tire went down. As a result, he finished 38th. "We hadn't run that well all day," said Labonte. "But we sure would have finished a lot better than where we ended up. That really hurt (his chances of making the Chase)."
ETC.: Labonte said "feeling comfortable in the car is a big key, and I'm gaining confidence every weekend. The team has some great stuff, great equipment and we have awesome teammates (at Michael Waltrip Racing)." Labonte joined the team last winter after Ambrose decided to move to Richard Petty Motorsports.
9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, down one spot and 36 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Finished 11th last spring for his best finish in four starts. Qualified second last fall and led 40 laps before ending up 34th.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose says "Martinsville is a tough half-mile track. It's a one-groove race track that's hard on brakes. You have to set the car up to be smooth off the corners so that it gets good forward bite. With 500 laps, I have to make sure I'm easy on the brakes so I've got something left at the end."
LOOKING BACK: It was a long day for Ambrose as he battled a car that was loose getting into the corner and tight in the center of the turns. As a result, he finished a disappointing 28th after starting 13th. "We made a ton of adjustments," he said. "Finally, with about 50 (laps) to go, we got it to where it was turning better. But it was just too late to make up the ground we had lost." Ambrose finished two laps back of winner Kevin Harvick.
ETC.: Crew chief Todd Parrott said that because some of the pit stalls at Martinsville "are in the corners and have banking in them ... it's important we qualify well so we get good pit selection. If we have to pit in the banking, it can make it difficult to get the car jacked up, and getting the tires back to pit wall after we change them can be a little tricky."
16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 38 points out of the top 10. Has gained 11 spots in two weeks.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Only two top-10s in 16 starts, but he did finish 10th last spring.
LOOKING AHEAD: Biffle said it is not hard to understand why Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have dominated Martinsville in recent years. "What happens," said Biffle, "is they figure out, 'OK, I used this spring and those shocks, this swaybar, the truck arms are mounted here and we've won four races like that.' Well, then they go back and they start there and just try this and that. They do little things. We're there and we don't even know where to start while they're polishing on what they've won the last five races with." Biffle will make his 300th Cup start this weekend.
LOOKING BACK: After struggling during the first half of the race, Biffle rallied to finish 11th at California. "It was a pretty good day considering where we qualified (32nd) and how the car drove most of the day," said Biffle. "Our car was really loose and felt like it was cutting off the left front too much at the end. We put two (tires) on at the end and got back to 11th. I would have had (Juan Pablo) Montoya at the end there, but the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was inside me (racing three-wide for 10th)."
ETC.: Biffle is confident "we can make it to the top 10, but we know it's not going to move quite as fast now (after jumping 11 spots in two weeks). We may be lucky to get one or two spots if we have a really good weekend, so it will just be a matter of time. We had two or three bad races, and the only way we can get around that is to have several top-10 runs or a win and couple seconds -- something like that -- and we'll move up."
11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, four spots down, 46 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Will be shooting for his fourth straight win there. Has not finished worse than sixth in the last nine races. During this remarkable run, he has four wins, two seconds and a third.
LOOKING AHEAD: Hamlin does not believe he has to win this weekend if he wants to make the Chase. "It's too early for that," said Hamlin. "We have to do everything we can at this point to get solid runs. We definitely need to get some solid finishes. We need to prove at this point we can finish a race. I've been this far back before after five races or so. We just need a run of top-10s."
LOOKING BACK: After leading once for 15 laps, Hamlin's engine failed and he finished 39th, severely damaging his hopes of making the Chase. "It looked like something in the drive train," said Hamlin. "It's disappointing for sure. We had a good car and I was just kind of playing with my teammate (Kyle Busch) there early. We lost some power early on in the day when we started dropping positions."
ETC.: Hamlin admits he is becoming concerned about the engine problems JGR has been having in 2011. "At this point, yeah, now it's starting to affect me," said Hamlin. "We've got to go to work and do some inspecting on this thing and see what we can do to finally finish a race. It's frustrating from my standpoint. It's frustrating because you want to do the best you can each week and Mike (Ford, the crew chief) and the team did a great job setting up the car (at California) and we had a fast car. It doesn't matter in the end if you can't finish the way you're supposed to."
6 DAVID RAGAN, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, two spots down, 46 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Still looking for his first top-10 finish. His best is 11th in nine starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: "The Martinsville race is long, and mentally and physically it's a tough race," said Ragan. "It's hard on the race car. It's tough on us. We've got to be very patient all day, but I feel good about going there. A lot of guys hate going up there, but I enjoy it."
LOOKING BACK: Ragan had high hopes after posting the fastest time during Happy Hour and starting sixth. But he struggled on long green-flag runs and finished a disappointing 22nd at Fontana. "We just made adjustment after adjustment and never could make it right," he said. "We were trying to tighten the car up because it was too free."
ETC.: Ragan believes "we're two good runs (finishes) away from being in the top 15. We look at the points and kind of dissect them and we're not in a hole that we can't dig out of. We can see where we want to be and that's the top 10, top 12, so we've got to turn it around and we've got to get to that next level with top-fives and top-10s. Twentieth-place finishes are just going to keep us 20th in points, so we just have to keep our head down and work hard."
2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Dodge
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 23rd, a loss of two spots, 50 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Finished 12th and 10th in his first two Sprint Cup starts last year.
LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski said "going into my first race at Martinsville the biggest thing was not to get too intimidated by the track. There are a lot of top-tier drivers that have horror stories about their first race there. I'm really excited to get back to Martinsville this weekend because I learned a lot in those first two races that will help me this season."
LOOKING BACK: Keselowski finished 26th at Auto Club Speedway. "We have a lot of work to do on our Dodges for these kind of tracks," said Keselowski. "We were hoping for big things this weekend, but it didn't work out that way. We've got to go back and think about what we need to do to be able to run up front. I don't think we were anywhere close to where we needed to be to run with the front guys here today. We've just got a lot of work to do."
ETC.: Crew chief Paul Wolfe said the "good thing about Martinsville is that you don't have to worry about aerodynamics. It's the shortest track we visit and it's all about mechanical grip. In the short time Brad has been at Martinsville he has shown a great ability to get around that place. I believe we can gain back the points we lost last weekend at Fontana."
83 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota
Team: Red Bull Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 24th, a gain of seven spots, 52 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: Finished sixth last spring for only his second top-10 finish in 11 starts. Missed the fall race because of a blood clot and heart problems.
LOOKING AHEAD: Vickers said he is looking forward to this weekend because of "how well we ran there last spring. The Red Bull team has been pretty good there about every time we've been there, so this could be a real good weekend. Another weekend like California and we will be right back in the hunt (to make the Chase)."
LOOKING BACK: Vickers was all smiles after finishing eighth at California. "We had a good car all day and we were competitive all day," he said. "The guys did a great job. We wanted to win, but I think everybody is pretty happy (with the results). This is just what this Red Bull crew needed -- a good, solid day."
ETC.: Vickers said he and teammate Kasey Kahne have been "working great together. The teams have been working well together. We've had two good cars week in and week out. We just haven't had the luck to go with it. We had a good run and he's had a problem, or vice versa. It's good for both of us to be up front racing competitively (as they were at California)." Vickers has had more bad luck than Kahne -- he has been involved in three accidents in the five races this year. Vickers has finished in the top 10 in the other two events.
31 JEFF BURTON, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 25th, an improvement of four positions, 54 points out of the top 10.
MARTINSVILLE RECORD: One win (September 1997) and 15 top-10 finishes in 33 starts. Finished ninth last fall after leading 134 laps. Led 140 laps last spring but ended up 20th.
LOOKING AHEAD: Burton is convinced "we had them beat in the spring there last year. We had (Denny) Hamlin beat. It was a done deal. Then we cut a right-front tire. Then we went back in the fall and ran really, really well. The last run of the race, we just weren't as good as what we needed to be. I think we can go there (this year) and be ultra-competitive."
LOOKING BACK: Burton ran in the top seven until he was hit with a pit-road speeding penalty on lap 69 of the 200-lap event. It took him more than a 100 laps to get back into the top 10. He was running 10th with nine laps to go but ended up 15th. "We took two tires on that last stop and the car just didn't like two tires," said Burton. "We ended up having to restart behind a guy that hadn't run well all day. He spun the tires on the restart, and that cost us three or four (positions). Then we got real loose and couldn't make (any ground) up. It was a pretty frustrating end to what had been a pretty strong day for the Caterpillar team."
ETC.: Burton is still looking for his first top-10 finish of the season. But he believes "we've got some really good tracks coming up. We just need a little racing luck and we will be just fine (in his bid to get in the Chase). We've had good cars. Things just haven't gone our way. There is still plenty of time. It just might take us awhile to get there (the top 10)."