NASCAR's short tracks often bring out the best and worst of the sport. The best being the tight, aggressive nature of the racing — a style rarely seen on the giant intermediate palaces of speed whose aero-dependent layouts dominate the circuit.
The same aggressive nature that so entertains fans can bring out the worst in the very competitors that wheel their 3,300-pound vehicles around the tracks for hours on end. But of course, that's part of the reason the fans show up in the first place.
Of NASCAR's three short tracks — Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville — the latter packs more physical action into an afternoon than the others combined.
That's not a knock on the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that has transcended NASCAR consciousness on the sporting landscape. Yet, Bristol's rousing physicality has been neutered by pure speed; the high banks encourage Evernham-like engineering over Earnhardt-esque manhandling.
Nor is it a slight to Richmond International Raceway, which strikes the best balance of what the paying fan vs. the paid driver enjoys most out of a racetrack. However, even Richmond's three-quarter mile layout — much like Bristol — has fallen prey to higher banking and thus, higher speeds and the fine-tuned geometry they coax.
That leaves Martinsville Speedway, a half-mile jewel that has fought off a sanctioning body's one-time desire to take from the facilities that “got it here” and move events to big-market locales where new fans, new money and a decidedly different style of racing exists.
Quaint little Martinsville, in tiny Ridgeway, Va., is as throwback as they come. It was one of eight tracks on the sport's inaugural 1949 Strictly Stock season — the forerunner of today's Sprint Cup Series. Then a dirt track, Martinsville is now part concrete, part asphalt.
Yes, the speeds have increased, but it's nearly flat turns have disallowed the head-spinning speeds seen at the two aforementioned venues. Its seating capacity is now roughly five times what it was then, but train tracks still line the countryside just outside of the backstretch and its “world famous” hot dogs can still be had for two bucks.
It's ironic — and devilishly appropriate — then, that the shortest track with the largest character still plays host to the most intense 500 laps that NASCAR enjoys each spring and fall. Money and sparkling new amenities can buy entry, but they cannot guarantee quality.
On Sunday in the STP 500, the field of 43 failed to make it two laps before the torquey straightaways and hairpin turns got the best of it. The event was interrupted only once for NASCAR's infamous debris caution (a method the powers-that-be use to bunch up the field to spike the entertainment ante).
Make no mistake, there was debris everywhere — rubber from tires, bits of sheet metal, hot dog wrappers, loose nuts and bolts — but there was no need for action-encouraging hijinks from the control tower.
Instead, Martinsville's no-frills, short-track confines once again forced race fans to reflect on the tracks they grew up visiting on hot summer evenings — the little quarter-mile joint out in the county, whose frontstretch (such as it was) was lined with old wooden bleachers. Martinsville provides the same intensity — 33 lead changes on Sunday — but does so at the major league level. And it does so every single time the circus comes to town.
Race-winner Kurt Busch's car would have been a half-second off the pace on one of NASCAR's 1.5-mile monstrosities; he never would've stood a chance. An early-race run-in with Brad Keselowski damaged each car and played witness to the “right” kind of payback that only a short track affords. Busch was able to soldier on, though, because aerodynamics mean little at Martinsville.
He eventually ran down, passed and held off mighty Jimmie Johnson — an eight-time Martinsville winner — in an ending that easily rivals the season-opener on the plate track in Daytona Beach.
“That's an epic-type battle at a short track, with a six-time champion,” Busch said. “To go back and forth and exchange the lead, a couple taps, a couple moves, a little bit of a chess game - that was the hardest 30 laps I ever drove not to slip a tire in my life.”
A couple taps, a couple moves, a little bit of a chess game. That's Martinsville, where time-tested results continue to stubbornly trump the allure of NASCAR's modern-era glitz and glamour.