The sixth-race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season brings us to the Martinsville Speedway for today's Goody's Fast Relief 500. Races at the .526-mile paperclip-shaped oval are entertaining for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the tight quarters that bring bent sheetmetal and bent tempers.
Martinsville also promotes varying strategies, which also adds to the enjoyment of a race there. The tires Goodyear brings to the track traditionally last deep into a fuel run, allowing teams to hit pit road under caution and leapfrog past their competitors once they make their stop under a subsequent yellow-flag condition.
The chief hazard at Martinsville is brake heat. No matter how well Goodyear's tires hold up over the course of a run, the searing heat generated by the heavy braking required to navigate the track's tight corners eventually melts the bead of the tire. Long green flag stretches turn into high-speed games of Russian Roulette, and once a driver finally pops a tire and bounces off the wall - usually drawing a caution flag - his competitors hit pit road for their new tires and repeat the process.
While the nature of racing at Martinsville create those headlines, the big stories of course rest with the 43 competitors who will take the green flag in the Goody's Fast Relief 500. Here is a sampling of what to watch for from start to - hopefully - the finish of today's event.
At the track where he got his first win, does Rick Hendrick score his 200th victory as a car owner today? The weekend is already off to a good start in Hendrick's bid for the milestone triumph, which would be his 19th at the track. Kasey Kahne, looking to turn around what has been nothing short of a nightmare opening stretch with the team, won his second pole of the season - becoming the first repeat polesitter of 2012 - and will lead the field to the green. Jeff Gordon, the active wins leader at Martinsville with seven, qualified ninth, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson - a six-time Martinsville victor - will start from the 14th and 22nd positions, respectively.
Will the Grandfather Clock strike on "Denny Time" once again? Virginia native Denny Hamlin has four wins at the short track, including a stretch of three in a row in October 2009-2010. His crew chief, Darian Grubb, won last fall's race with Tony Stewart in rather stunning fashion, rebounding from nearly losing a lap - to Hamlin, the leader at the time - and passing Johnson on the last restart. If Hamlin and Grubb are anywhere near the front of the field as the race draws towards its conclusion, they very well could be celebrating their second win in just six weeks together.
Can A.J. Allmendinger pick up his first checkered flag? Allmendinger has turned in some solid performances at Martinsville, though the results haven't necessarily reflected that. Shorter, flat tracks like Martinsville and the one-mile ovals in Phoenix and New Hampshire have been the sight of some of his better runs, and as a win waiting to happen, today could be his day. His 27th-place starting spot provides a steep challenge, but it is something crew chief Todd Gordon could overcome with the aforementioned track position gambles.
Does Brian Vickers redeem himself for last fall's fiasco? Vickers hit everything but the lottery last October in one of the more ridiculous performances by a single driver in recent memory. His return to the Cup Series two weeks ago at Bristol was certainly an eye-opening success, as he led more laps than anyone other than race-winner Brad Keselowski and finished fifth in easily his best showing since returning from blood clots last season. Martinsville, with its tight turns, is a completely different animal as opposed to Bristol, and how well VIckers - who starts sixth - plays with his competitors could go a long way in determining whether or not he finds himself back behind the wheel on a full-time basis anytime soon.
These are just four of the stories we'll be watching all race long. Tune into FOX 5 Atlanta or your local FOX affiliate at 1 p.m. for the Goody's Fast Relief 500 and follow along with us.