By Rick Minter
A good argument could be made that the road to NASCAR greatness is shaped like a paper clip. Nearly all of the sport’s all-time great drivers found — or are finding — success on the tight, half-mile Martinsville Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson’s dominating win in Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 was his eighth at the historic Virginia track, breaking a tie with Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, and giving him sole possession of third place on Martinsville’s all-time win list.
The top two, Richard Petty with 15 Martinsville wins and Darrell Waltrip with 11, already are in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, along with Wallace. Tied for fifth on the list are two more Hall of Famers, Cale Yarborough and the late Dale Earnhardt. Other Hall of Famers on the top of the stats at Martinsville are Buck Baker, third in poles, Junior Johnson, third in car owner victories, and Glen Wood and Bobby Allison, who are tied for fourth in Martinsville poles.
Richie Evans, the only Modified series regular in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, had 10 wins at Martinsville, the track where he lost his life in a crash in 1985.
Strangely absent from the list is Hall of Famer David Pearson, but he still had three Martinsville poles, a win, four runner-up and five third-place finishes despite being an infrequent competitor there and making many of his starts in a Wood Brothers car built to run on superspeedways.
As with any motorsports accomplishment on any type of track, good equipment is a key component of the overall package at Martinsville.
Johnson’s win was the 20th at Martinsville for car owner Rick Hendrick, who broke a tie with Petty Enterprises to take possession of the top spot among car owners. Johnson said his crew gave him the car to beat.
“There’s a feel to this track, and the history we have — 10, 11 years now of coming here and doing this — we just draw on and fall back on,” he said. “For me to roll in here off of vacation, literally got home the day before, and first lap out on the track put it up on the top of the [leader] board, just tells me how good of a car I had.
“It was really up to me to not mess it up as the weekend went on.”
Third-finishing Jeff Gordon agreed that Hendrick Motorsports builds fast Martinsville cars.
“Hendrick has got something figured out pretty good here,” he said. “The first time I drove for Rick, I knew how good their equipment was everywhere we went.”
Hendrick also was able to pick up the fourth finishing position with the No. 5 Chevrolet driven by Kasey Kahne, but the fourth driver in his stable, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had a disappointing day.
Earnhardt, who had been running strong at Martinsville in recent races, entered the race as the Sprint Cup points leader, but struggled most of the day, spun out late and finished 24th. That dropped him to third in the standings, 12 points behind Johnson and six behind Brad Keselowski, who finished sixth for the second straight time at Martinsville.
While Johnson’s victory came as no real surprise, especially given the fact that he had the preferred pit stall as a result of his pole-winning performance on Friday, the stirring 12th-place finish by rookie Danica Patrick came as something of a shocker.
Patrick qualified 32nd, spun early and fell two laps down, but as the race went on she seemed to figure out how to race at Martinsville, something many other newcomers have struggled with over the years, and came on strong at the finish.
“I felt like it was kind of traditional passing here, setting it up and getting your nose in there, a little bit more road-course style, so that might have some effect because I’ve done so much of that,” she said. “But good car, steady day. I got a lot of advice on keeping my head cool and just letting things go.”
She said the early spin provided a good lesson for later.
“I learned my lesson to make sure that you just don’t go in [the corner] too hard because they’re going to be holding you tight, and there’s going to be nowhere to go, nowhere to slide up, and you get into them,” she said.
Patrick’s crew chief Tony Gibson said he was most proud of his driver’s performance in the closing laps, when the beating and banging ratchets up at Martinsville.
“It was great to see that,” he said. “I was worried about that. I knew that with 30 [laps] to go, the restarts were going to get more and more aggressive.
“I was really happy to see how aggressive she got. They would bump her and she wouldn’t get flustered. I was impressed with that. That was the biggest thing I was nervous about — how she would do in a situation like that. It will help her gain some confidence.”
The strong finish came at a time when Patrick could use a confidence booster.
Since Daytona, where she started on the pole and finished eighth, Patrick had four disappointing outings — all outside the top 25 — before coming to Martinsville.
“It was just nice to have a good weekend after having so many that weren’t good since Daytona,” she said. “I think the team has a lot to be proud of.”