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Martinsville and Talladega can shake up the Chase

It happens every year at this time, but I still can’t help but smile at the wicked sense of humor the NASCAR schedule makers must have had when they put the smallest, slowest track on the circuit, tiny Martinsville Speedway, and the biggest baddest track on the circuit, Talladega Superspeedway, back to back.
What better place to start the stretch drive for the series championship than Martinsville Speedway, recognized as one of NASCAR’s most storied tracks. The historic Virginia half mile oval is the only track that was on the schedule in the first NASCAR season that still hosts the series today.  

H. Clay Earles first opened Martinsville as a dirt track in the summer of 1947. A year later,  NASCAR was formed and in 1949, Martinsville hosted the sixth race in the series that eventually became the Sprint Cup Series. NASCAR legend Red Byron was the race winner, driving an Oldsmobile for pioneer car owner Raymond Parks. Since that historic opener, Martinsville has been a staple on the NASCAR schedule.
While it may be the shortest track on the circuit, it’s one of the biggest when it comes to producing exciting racing action. The track has two 800-foot straightaways hooked together by short, tight and almost flat turns with just 11 degrees of banking. Founder H. Clay Earles decided more than 40 years ago that it was time for a unique type of trophy to be awarded to the race winner. Earles decided on a grandfather clock; specifically a grandfather clock produced by a local furniture manufacturer. So, on Sept. 27, 1964 Earles awarded the first Ridgeway clock trophy to Fred Lorenzen, the winner of the Old Dominion 500. Richard Petty has collected the most grandfather clock trophies, winning 12 times at Martinsville, the first victory coming in 1967. Jeff Gordon leads all current drivers with seven wins and seven Ridgeway clocks.  
Four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson went into Martinsville last Sunday with a 41 point lead over Denny Hamlin. The top two in the points, Johnson and Hamlin have been absolutely superb in their Martinsville performances of late. Dating back to this race in 2006, the two have now combined to win the last nine races at Martinsville. Hamlin a native of Chesterfield Va., went into last weekend’s race as the defending race winner. Martinsville’s tight 1/2 mile paperclip configuration guarantees a day of old-fashioned short-track, fenderbanging racing.  
This Sunday the racing could hardly be more different as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the running of the AMP Energy 500. Always a real wild card in the championship race, Talladega with its high banked 2.66 mile configuration and restrictor plate racing offers some of the most thrilling, some might say chilling, racing in NASCAR. At the Aaron’s 499 last April, there was a NASCAR record 88 lead changes spread among 29 different drivers, with Kevin Harvick taking the win.  
A year ago, Jamie McMurray came out of the pack in the final laps to win the Amp Energy 500 and further enhance his prowess as a restrictor plate driver. Last year’s race produced 58 lead changes among 25 different drivers. With the restrictor plates keeping the field running in a tightly bunched pack inches apart at speeds of close to 200 MPH, every driver in the race is apt to get caught up in “the big one.”  
Sunday, it will not be a question of will there be a “big one”? The question is: when will it occur, and who will be taken out by it? The drivers have precious little control over whether or not they will be taken out by one of the track’s multi-car debacles.
A poor showing at Talladega could easily erase the slim lead Jimmie Johnson has built thus far in the Chase. It’s certainly possible, given Johnson’s feast or famine showing at Talladega.  In 17 starts Johnson has seven finishes of 9th or better. However, those are offset by six finishes of 30th or worse. “After Talladega, teams and drivers can work on a strategy of protecting or taking chances,” Johnson said recently. “We have to get past Talladega to be concerned who the points leader is.”
With a 31st place finish in the spring race, Johnson gave up 115 points to race winner Kevin Harvick. With just three races remaining after this Sunday, that large of a points swing could have a profound impact on the outcome of the Chase.
You may reach Pete Barber at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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