Speed Reading Bristol: Navigating NASCAR's Bermuda Triangle

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Ryan McGee

Terrible trio of tracks ready to strike Chasers
Each week, I receive anywhere from 150 to 1,500 e-mails in my on MSN mailbox. And each week, those e-mails pretty much consist of the same content, ranked here from most frequent to least:

  1. You suck
  2. How to score cheap Viagra
  3. You are a jerk
  4. I can't believe you actually said Jeff Gordon might be the greatest of all time
  5. How to get a lower interest rate

But over the last two weeks, a new topic has hit the number one spot with a bullet. "Hey Ryan, after just four races, is it time to start panicking that Dale Jr. might not make The Chase?"

The short answer — yes.

The long answer — yes, for three reasons. Namely, Bristol, Martinsville and Talladega. Three of the next five races on the Nextel Cup schedule are also the three most unpredictable stops on the tour. NASCAR's two smallest tracks and its largest all three present the same problem once the green flag drops. No matter how much you prepare or how good your car is or how impressive you think your resume' might be... these three tracks could care less.

"I have had cars that could have won at all three of those tracks and ended up in the wall," says two-time Martinsville winner Jeff Burton. "And I have had cars that were total junk and ended up in the top 10. But on short tracks and restrictor plate tracks, so much of the final outcome is based on nothing but pure dumb luck."

Which is exactly why Earnhardt, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth fans should be getting no sleep over the next five weeks. Between the three, they have won 45 races and two Cup titles. Among those 45 wins, only seven have come on these three fender-eating facilities. Five of those seven belong to Dale Jr., four at Talladega and one at Bristol. Bobby Labonte won at 'Dega back in 1998 and Martinsville in 2002.

Other than that, zero... zilch... blank... oh-fer. Not good news for a trio of wannabe title contenders that are currently sitting in an average points position of 31st.

"On one hand, you are glad to see these two short tracks coming up," says Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's longtime crew chief. "Because you know that aerodynamics and all of that doesn't come into play. But on the other hand, you also know that you can very easily get caught up in a mess that isn't your fault. A lapped car won't get out of the way or someone runs into you and knocks the nose off the car while you are running up front. That's the risk you run with so many cars in such a small space."

How arbitrary are the accidents? Consider this. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has started 10 races at Martinsville, scoring five top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse. In 24 Martinsville starts, Bobby Labonte owns the win and 11 top 10s to go with eight finishes of 18th or worse. Kenseth's record at the 'Ville — three efforts inside the top 10, four outside the top 20.

"I think every driver has the types of tracks they like and hate," Kenseth observes. "And I think at every track, you have to be careful not to get caught up in something that isn't your fault. But I think we all race a little more careful on short tracks and plate tracks. But even being as careful as you can be, they usually bite you anyway."

Thanks to The Chase's new 26-race regular season, the pain that comes from those bites has gone from that of a mosquito to a gator chomp.

Case in point, take a look at look at Rusty Wallace one year ago. Here's the career active short track king, and entering this same treacherous stretch one year ago, he blistered Bristol and Martinsville, finishing 2nd and 1st and boosting himself to 8th in points. One week later, he got caught up in a giant mess at Talladega, finished 33rd and dropping out of the top 10 never to return. He was out of title contention before May, thanks to NASCAR's version of Lethal Weapon 3.

Even without trouble during this graveyard shift, odds of coming from the lower half of the points chart by mid-September aren't good. Of the drivers ranked 13th or worse after four races one year ago, exactly one clawed his way into The Chase — Mark Martin, who was sitting 17th headed into the season's 5th event. The highest climber from the second division was Michael Waltrip, who jumped from 36th to 20th, 16 spots. Which means that if Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to duplicate the largest leap of last season, he would barely nose his way into the title hunt by grabbing the 10th spot.

Those are long odds at best. Especially with the Terrible Three Tracks sitting directly in the way over the next five weekends.

Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images and Senior Producer of NASCAR Nation on SPEED Channel. He can be reached at his e-mail address:

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Busch Beat
Here come the hired guns. As the NASCAR Busch Series prepares for the Mexico 200 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on March 6 (3 p.m. ET on FOX) — the road racing specialists are once again landing one-off gigs.

Carl Edwards will be going for his second consecutive Busch-Cup weekend sweep after taking both events at Atlanta two weeks ago. His two-fer was just the 20th in 23-year history of the NASCAR Busch Series. Those double plays have taken place on a dozen different tracks and only once at Bristol, accomplished by Dale Earnhardt Jr. last August.

Truck Stop
Ricky Craven's first career Cup victory came at the Martinsville Speedway on October 15, 2001. Nearly four years later, he's one of the favorites to score his first Truck Series win at Martinsville when the trucks get cranked back up on April 9 (1 p.m. ET, SPEED). In three NCTS starts this season, Craven has scored two top-five finishes and sits 3rd in points, 86 markers behind defending series champ Bobby Hamilton. "I know Martinsville isn't necessarily a lot of guys' favorite track, but it will always be a special place for me. How great would it be if I win my first race in two different series there?"

Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
The King won at Bristol "only" three times in 60 starts, but he came close to quadrupling that stat. Petty is the career leader in runner-up finishes at Thunder Valley with 10 runner-up finishes. The first came in 1963 when he finished second to Fred Lorenzen, and the last came in 1987 when he crossed the line staring at the back bumper of Dale Earnhardt.

Who's Hot & Who's Not
Kurt Busch: True, he had a miserable day at Atlanta, but if you don't have him in your fantasy lineup at Bristol, you'll have a miserable day yourself. He's won the last three March races and is currently riding a streak of six straight top-10 finishes at Thunder Valley.
  • Kurt Busch's career Cup stats at Bristol

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Most of the e-mails I have received over the last week have asked the same question: "Is it time for Junior to start panicking about making The Chase?" The answer? Absolutely. He's 26th in points with two unpredictable short tracks in the next two weeks. Yikes.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career Cup stats at Bristol

  • Who's Hot, Who's Not
  • Cost of Racing
    On NASCAR Nation, we dared to enter a world where few can afford the cover charge at the door — the world of NASCAR Nextel Cup ownership. During the three-part weeklong series, we threw out more gigantic numbers than an accountant at Enron. Only these figures, shockingly, are accurate all the way down to the last tire purchase. So, here goes, the cost of racing in NASCAR's big leagues. And it's bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "sticker shock".
  • Read the entire story
  • Speed Mail of the Week
    From Gail in Montgomery, Ala.: "If the National Stock Car Racing Commission is a such a well-respected independent group that gets to decide whether or not appeals go through, then why don't they also decide what the penalties are in the first place? Just seems to me like we would be cutting an unneeded step out of the process."
    Tagged: Jeff Gordon

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