After a week off and for some folks a time to cool off, the Sprint Cup Series returns to action at Martinsville Speedway.
Martinsville, a 0.526-mile, paperclip-shaped racetrack, will feature a lot of beating and banging among competitors during 500 laps of racing. It's also likely that tempers will flare either before or after the checkered flag waves here.
Joey Logano and Tony Stewart will be the center of attention this weekend at Martinsville following their physical altercation last week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Stewart got into a post-race scuffle with Logano on pit road. He was furious with Logano for blocking him multiple times during a restart late in the event.
It was the second straight race Logano had been involved in an altercation. Last month at Bristol, Denny Hamlin and he had words with each other followed by a shoving match between both of their teams after that race ended. Logano was upset after Hamlin spun him around in the late going.
"You have to always look forward in this sport," Logano said. "If you linger on things, you will only go so far. So I've been focusing on Martinsville from the time we left California. It was good that we had an off-weekend, so everyone got a little rest before the upcoming stretch of races. But with the way we have been running, I want to keep the momentum going. So I'm ready to get back at it and move on."
During their confrontation at Fontana, Stewart pushed Logano around, while Logano threw a water bottle at Stewart before crew members from both teams intervened. Stewart later said that Logano is "going to learn a lesson."
Will that lesson take place at Martinsville?
Whether or not he has another run-in with Logano, Stewart does expect a drama- filled day on Sunday at Martinsville.
"One thing about Martinsville is there is no lack of excitement," Stewart said. "I don't care how flawlessly your day goes, you're going to bump into somebody at some point, even on a perfect day. You put 43 cars on this half- mile track, and it's always going to be exciting. You will never have a race there where you don't have some sort of drama during the day. I think every driver will say they will have some drama at some point in the day. When you have 43 drivers with 43 dramatic moments, that's a lot of action going on."
After his accident at Fontana, Hamlin is expected to miss the next five races due to a compression fracture in his lower back. He crashed hard into the inside retaining wall after making contact with Logano while the two were battling for the lead and the win during the final lap.
Mark Martin will substitute for Hamlin in the No. 11 Toyota at Martinsville. Hamlin, though, is planning to be at the track throughout the weekend.
With top-10 finishes in each of the first five races this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to Martinsville with a 12-point lead over defending series champion Brad Keselowski. Jimmie Johnson is 16 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt.
Martinsville has been one of Earnhardt's better tracks lately. He has finished either second or third in the last two spring races here. Earnhardt has yet to win in 26 starts at this track.
"I love racetracks like that," Earnhardt said of Martinsville. "Every track has something about it that you like or something characteristic about it that you enjoy. But Martinsville is just a fun place, really fun track to race on. I think the fans get a great event. They get a great show when we're there. I think it's a good ticket between it and Bristol and Richmond. It's some of the best short-track racing in the country that you can see. I feel like it's always a lot of fun."
Two years ago, Earnhardt was just a handful of laps away from winning at Martinsville for the first time. He took the lead for the first time in that race when he nudged Kyle Busch out of the way with 21 laps remaining. But Kevin Harvick denied Earnhardt the victory after Harvick passed him with just four laps to go.
"At Martinsville, you do a lot of protecting your line, protecting your position," Earnhardt said. "You'll see guys doing a little bit of blocking. But there's a fine line, and I kind of go back to everybody's opinion on where that line is going to be different, and you're going to get different reactions out of different guys, depending on how you race them. You can race everybody the same, and some guys might not like it and some guys might not have a problem with it. But you've got to know each other's personalities well and know what to expect."
Ryan Newman won at Martinsville one year ago, and Johnson claimed the victory here last October. Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers with seven wins at this track.
Danica Patrick will compete at Martinsville for the first time. If Patrick makes the field, she will become the first female to start a race here.
"I am actually really excited about Martinsville," Patrick said. "I like the little short tracks. They're fun. We're going to be close racing a lot of the time. We went testing out at Little Rock (Rockingham, N.C.) and got a feel for a track like Martinsville. I thought we actually made some really big gains that day. It was fun. Is there time to look down at your water and oil temperatures? No, there's not. I think it will be fun, and I had no idea that a woman had not competed (in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race) at Martinsville, but I guess these are things I'll find out along the way."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the STP Gas Booster 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, April 7. Race: STP Gas Booster 500. Site: Martinsville Speedway. Track: 0.526-mile oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 500. Miles: 263. 2012 Winner: Ryan Newman. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.