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As Edwards knows, Martinsville doesn't give up secrets easily

October 29, 2011, David Caraviello,

As points leader Edwards knows, Martinsville doesn't give up secrets easily

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- As the oldest active track on NASCAR's premier circuit, Martinsville Speedway is a place where change comes slowly, if at all. The configuration of the short track has essentially remained the same since founder H. Clay Earles carved it out of the soil in 1947. Trains still chug by on the railroad track behind the backstretch grandstand. The 4-inch high curbs guarding the inside of the turns have drawn the ire of drivers for generations.

It's a place that demands slower speeds and higher degrees of patience, and allows for improvement at an incremental pace. Getting better at Martinsville takes years of race after race and lap after lap, small details building upon small details. There are no aha moments, no instances of sudden enlightenment, no overnight turnarounds. Some drivers get this quirky half-mile layout, others don't, and there isn't much in between.

Carl Edwards

Martinsville results

"Technology doesn't change a lot here, so I think those patterns stay consistent," said six-time track winner Jimmie Johnson. "Guys that run well continue to show strength, and the guys that struggle seem to typically do [so]."

Series leader Carl Edwards falls squarely into that latter category. When he first came to Martinsville, as a driver in the Truck Series, everything seemed easy. He scored a pole in his second start, and recorded top-10 finishes with regularity. Then he moved to the Cup level, and Martinsville began to bare its teeth a little, and progress at this track began to reveal itself at a rate that can only be described as glacial. Martinsville is among Edwards' worst tracks in terms of performance, a place where his average finish is 16.9 and where his mettle as the championship favorite will be most tested.

Edwards comes to Martinsville with a 14-point lead over Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth in the standings, and with good tracks like Texas and Homestead-Miami looming in the distance. But first he has to get through Martinsville, and to the driver of the No. 99 car this quaint, historic place looms like a bear trap ready to spring shut.

"It's been one of those tracks to me where, for the last few races I've come to it dreading it a little bit. But now I come to it just realizing, hey, I've got my work cut out for me. I have to perform well. I have to go out here and give everything I've got. And to me, to come out of here with a top-10 would be a success. So I don't dread it as much anymore. Now I just look at it like, hey, this is going to be a challenge," Edwards said.

"The great thing is having those 14 points. If I would have come in here tied with [Johnson or Kevin Harvick], I'd be really nervous, because I'd say they'd have an advantage. I'd say they could do more damage to us in that situation. But having a little bit more of a cushion and based on our good fortune last week, I just look at it as a challenge. But we need to have a good run. We need to run well so that I can come back here with a little confidence instead of coming here and knowing I've got to battle."

Last week at Talladega, Edwards played it safe and emerged with an 11th-place finish that kept his points lead intact. At Martinsville, though, strategy won't be enough. Edwards is leaning on Kenseth for information, given that his teammate recorded a sixth-place result here in the spring. Two of Edwards' past three races here have resulted in top-10 runs. But even those were a struggle, or the result of a little good luck. In NASCAR as in the stock market, past results are no guarantee of future success. But at Martinsville, local knowledge and a strong track record can go a long way. Consider that seven-time winner Jeff Gordon still relies on little tricks he picked up here almost two decades ago.

"This is one of those tracks where there are very few light-bulb moments that go on here," Gordon said. "It's just all kinds of little tiny details that come together as a driver to help you get around this track. ... Back in the day I was able to test here, make a lot of laps, and start working on those details. And once I figured out a few fairly major things that I would call a bit of a light-bulb moment, it allowed me to give really good information to the team to figure out how to go faster. And that's why I say so few things have changed here over the years, because what I learned then and what we do as a team, from all the way back to 15, 18 years ago, can still sort of apply. This is that one place where having a good baseline or track record can continue to pay off for you."

Edwards doesn't necessarily have that baseline. Despite his strong finish in the spring, neither does Kenseth, whose average finish here is 15.8. Given all that goes into winning at Martinsville, stark reversals of fortune are about as rare as an uneaten hot dog.

"It takes such little increments of getting better that you can't go out there and change it all at once," said Harvick, who won here in April. "It's like you learn a little piece here, and a little piece there. Luckily for me, I've had teammates that have run well here, so we've adapted some of the setup stuff. You go back and you look at tape and you're trying to figure out what exactly they're doing with the same stuff to get better. I think that was just a progression over time. When you first come here, it's one of those places where you can really charge, but that's really probably not the right way to do it. It's so close here, and it's so competitive, and there are so many little things that it takes to make a good lap. You have to just kind of piece all that together."

Harvick is proof of that, someone who grinded out one finish after another, picking up one little hint after another, until he broke through. No wonder so many of the usual suspects -- Gordon, Johnson, Denny Hamlin -- contend here again and again. Martinsville is a place that produces regular winning streaks, because so much about what it takes to win here is constant. "When aero and horsepower don't mean as much at a race track, and it's more about the way you technically drive around it ... those same techniques work," Hamlin said. "That's why you see continually the same guys running up front, I feel like, at this race track. It's their technique, and it's the way it works."

For Martinsville's have-nots, though, every race can be a struggle. No one knows that more than Edwards, who will be happy to head for Texas with a top-10 finish, and with one of the biggest hurdles in his path to the championship cleared.

"I don't mind driving here," Edwards said. "I think part of my problem here maybe is the way that I've practiced, and the way I want my car to feel in practice, because it just seems we start the race and it's just, I always struggle in the race. But a lot of times we finish practice and we go, OK, we're not that bad, everything's going to work. And then it turns into 500 laps of really, really tough work. We did have, I think in 2008 we came to this race and finished third or fourth. That was a spectacular run for us. Last year in the spring we had a great run going and had a flat tire. So we've had some flashes where I thought, OK, it's all working out. But most of the time I feel like it's a pretty big job to run well."