Nobody likes being stuck in a traffic jam, especially not NASCAR drivers, but that’s what racing at the tiny Martinsville Speedway is all about.
With two 800-foot straightways connected by hairpin turns and a claustrophobically small pit road, drivers will be in heavy traffic for pretty much all 500 laps of Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville.
And, not surprisingly, tempers will flare.
That much is a given, considering the tight quarters drivers will be competing in, and the fact that they will be constantly fighting each other to get to the bottom of the track, which is the fast way around.
“People tend to get road rage at Martinsville because of the pressure and there is so much stuff in your face all the time,” said Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. “Mentally, it is difficult to stay focused and not let everything that is going on around you let you make decisions that are wrong for you. You have to remember why you are there and who you are. You also have to stay focused on what you are doing on that lap that will get you there.”
Tony Stewart, who won at Martinsville last fall, said he had to overcome his temper to succeed here.
“I used to be as guilty of it and bad as anybody about taking a cheap shot at guys early,” said Stewart, the reigning and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. “But you realize that it’s not about the two guys driving the cars out there as much as there’s a bunch of crew guys who spend a lot of hours and put a lot of heart and soul into what we have as a product each week with these race cars and there’s a car owner who spends a lot of money. I think at times we all forget about that. You let a guy get his butt kicked once or twice, he’ll quit doing stupid stuff like that.”
Because the track is so short and there are so many cautions, the field is frequently bunched up at Martinsville, which can wreak havoc on drivers.
“You can do everything right for 450 laps and then when everybody gets antsy on the last restart with 40 (laps) to go and you drive down into the corner and someone runs in the back of you and turns you around,” said Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. “It’s easy to happen there. It happens all the time, so Martinsville is a place you can really be patient and really do a lot of things right and have somebody ruin your day.”
“To me, the toughest part of Martinsville is that you just never have a moment to breathe,” said Kurt Busch, who won here in 2002. “You have to be on your game non-stop for 500 laps because somebody’s on you or you are on top of somebody the whole time and there is just no room for error.”
Truth be told, there’s not much room for passing, either, which is why things get physical at Martinsville.
“I don’t want to have to run into that guy or bump him out of the way, you don’t want to have to do that,” said Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle. “That creates a little animosity between you and that guy. On the other hand, that is part of this race track. There is a lot of contact because the speeds are slow enough that typically when there is a little rubbing or pushing and shoving that guy is not wrecking. You can get away with it. ... Sometimes the only way around him is a little bit of roughing up.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.