NASCAR At Martinsville: Sprint Cup Racing Returns To The Paperclip

MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 30: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, leads Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 MyLowe's Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2011 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Hendrick Motorsports stands as the undisputed king of Martinsville Speedway, and Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be primed to bring him another Grandfather Clock trophy this weekend.

At a cozy .526 miles, the Martinsville Speedway is the smallest track to host top-tier stock car races. Opening in 1947, it is also the oldest NASCAR track still in operation, predating Darlington Raceway by three years and the Daytona International Speedway by more than a decade.

This weekend's Sprint Cup 500-lapper at the paperclip-shaped oval provides a throwback of sorts to the early days of stock car racing, when most races were held on short tracks - a far cry from today's schedule which features only three true such venues with a pair of races at each.

When picking a favorite to win Sunday's Goody's Fast Relief 500, one would probably look to the last four drivers to take checkered flags and pick up the Grandfather clock trophy at Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson dominated the track from October 2006-April 2009, winning all but one race to go along with his tragedy-marred October 2004 win there. Denny Hamlin, who's March 2008 triumph was the only victory for a driver other than Johnson during his streak, added three more wins in succession including a season-sweep in 2010. Last season, late race passes propelled both Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart to victory

While any of those four drivers would make a solid pick, smart money would be with Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates - along with Stewart and Ryan Newman, who's Stewart-Haas Racing teams field entries with Hendrick-built engines and chassis.

Rick Hendrick-owned Chevrolets have thoroughly owned Martinsville through the years. In fact, his very first victory came at the track in 1984 with Geoff Bodine behind the wheel. Between them, Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon have 13 wins. For all his success at Martinsville, however, Hendrick's darkest memory also centers around the track. Johnson's first triumph occurred just hours after a plane crash that killed seven members of Hendrick's family - including his brother and son - and race team, along with Stewart's chopper pilot and the plane's pilots. Johnson and the other Hendrick competitors were not made aware of the tragedy until after the race. Johnson went on to win at Atlanta a week later in one of the most emotional victories in motorsports history.

In spite of the tragedy, Hendrick's cars continued to win at Martinsville. Gordon swept the season in 2005 and Johnson began his reign as the track's king by holding off Hamlin to pick up the win he didn't get to celebrate two years prior.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won at Martinsville, but it has been one of his best race tracks especially since joining Hendrick Motorsports. It was Earnhardt whom Harvick had to overhaul to win last year's race, and if NASCAR's most popular driver is to end his four-year-long winless drought on a non-restrictor plate track, Martinsville is probably the most likely venue for him to break through.

A darkhorse for Sunday could be A.J. Allmendinger, driving for Roger Penske. Short tracks, particularly flat ones, have been Allmendinger's strong suit in NASCAR. He always seems to run well at Martinsville and the half-mile longer but similarly configured New Hampshire Motor Speedway. One should not be surprised if the Los Gatos, CA, native ends Sunday's race with his first trip to a NASCAR victory lane.

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