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NASCAR 2011 Schedule: Martinsville Provides Big Action In A Small Package

Opening in 1947, the Martinsville Speedway is the oldest track in NASCAR. At .526 miles in length, the paperclip-shaped oval is also the smallest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.

In spite of its age and size, however, the Martinsville Speedway annually provides some of the best action of the entire Sprint Cup season.

The recipe for the excitement produced on the claustrophobic speedway is simple: take 43 cars manned by 43 human beings fully capable of the perfectly human emotion of losing their cool, pack them into a space that small, then rinse and repeat 499 times, and the result is plenty of bent sheetmetal, plenty of bruised egos, and often times, plenty of blowups.

Short track racing is its own kind of animal, and the three tracks that fit the bill - Martinsville, Bristol, and Richmond - often bring out the worst - or best, depending on which point of view you take - in the stars of the sport. Martinsville is especially frustrating, as the conveyor-belt of cars hugging the inside of each corner makes it nearly impossible to make up positions unless you A. have a car that is hooked up or B. use the front bumper and right side of your car to muscle your way through. While a couple of drivers per race usually fall under option A, most have to resort to option B. And while the muscler might be happy with the gain he has made, the musclee is less than pleased. Often, he will express his displeasure by sending the driver who just roughhoused him into the next corner's SAFER Barrier.

Other times, two drivers might be racing for a position near the front of the field, no real animosity between them, but the driver behind might misjudge his entrance to a turn and spin the other driver out. That driver now has to drop all the way to the back of the field and start all over, and you can bet by now that the "Animosity Meter" is pegged.

Another frustrating aspect of Martinsville is the fact that at any moment, all the heat generated using the brakes to get the car slowed down for the tightest turns on the circuit could melt the bead of your right front tire, causing it to go flat. If that doesn't get you, someone else's right-side sheetmetal could cut down your left rear tire. Once either tire goes, unless you spin or bounce off the wall to draw a caution flag, you're stuck limping to pit road under green flag conditions.

By the time you make it to your pit stall, get your tire changed - which can often require the crew to lift the side of the car with the flat tire so that the jack can slide under the chassis - and get back onto the track, most likely you are three or more laps down to the race leader. While Jeff Gordon made up three laps and won in April 2005 at Martinsville, that generally means that your race is effectively over.

And while most drivers are toiling away in traffic, making mental hit lists of every guy that rubs them and debating whether or not to wreck the car in front of them so they can get a caution flag and pit for adjustments, there are always one or two that have their machines hooked up and look like they're on a pleasant Sunday drive. That creates a sense of urgency amongst the drivers near the rear of the field, knowing the leaders are coming and they can't afford to go a lap down. Thus, they kick up the nudging and rubbing a notch or five until somebody finally ends up parked against the wall.

All of this action creates one of the most exciting environments for race fans, especially those sitting in each corner with a birds-eye view of all the contact. As an added treat for those fans, the cars are so slow in the turns, sometimes dipping under 70 MPH, that you can clearly see your favorite driver at work. And the drivers can see you, too: Tony Stewart remarked after his October 2000 win that lap after lap, there was a Dale Earnhardt fan pressed against the fence, flipping him off as the race neared it's conclusion.

The end result is that Martinsville is one of NASCAR's most exciting and unique race tracks, not to mention the place where radio communication is just about universally R-Rated (warning: VERY strong language).

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.