By Mike Mulhern
Just a look at all those empty seats in these grandstands, and it’s clear that Sunday’s 500 should be a big wake-up call for NASCAR executives and the France family, which owns Martinsville Speedway.
It may have been the first race of spring, but it was the coldest Sunday of the NASCAR season. Still, there were way too many holes in the 62,000-seat grandstands at the Martinsville track, and those backstretch grandstands were even empty and covered with advertising banners to boot.
This being the heart of stock car racing country – they’ve been racing right here over the North Carolina border since 1947 – that poor crowd has to be a significant blow to NASCAR, and to this track, at least in its current flat, low-speed configuration.
With some five million people within two hours of this track, NASCAR executives certainly can’t blame this market for such a low turnout.
And, yes, the weather was unseasonably cold Sunday. But just a few days earlier it was 70 degrees and sunny, and tracks in the NASCAR heartland shouldn’t have to be so dependent on a good walkup crowd to prosper.
Either International Speedway Corp. officials are complicit in letting this legendary track wither on the vine, or they’ve been taking things for granted and simply not poured enough money and time into promotion and marketing and construction work.
And then maybe the track layout itself just isn’t 21st century.
Not that all those cookie-cutter 1-1/2-mile facilities are all that great, but it looks like something isn’t working here.
And Sunday’s weak crowd is certain to fan speculation that this track’s two Sprint Cup weekends
The bottom line: if Bristol can sell out 160,000 seats twice a year, why can’t Martinsville do better than it has lately?
That will almost certainly be a big question during the next ISC quarterly call to Wall Street.
The show here itself? Well, it might not have been great, with 18 caution flags for 89 laps, and a cold mist coating the track and windshields and fans. But the action wasn’t that bad really. In fact the last 120 laps were pretty darned good, with nearly 10 men having a shot at the win.
Denny Hamlin pulled it out, with some gambling pit strategy that forced his rivals to chase him down the stretch.
“The curse is over, I hope,” Hamlin said. “This is a sign of things to come.
“I thought we were too far ahead (at the end), and I started slowing down to make sure I was hitting my lines. We had really been hard on the tires holding off Jeff Burton when he came on the charge.
“I was trying to take my time so if he (Jeff Gordon) made a run on me, I’d have a little left. I just watched in the mirror and made sure I kept a safe distance.”
Newcomer Aric Amirola showed he might be a real comer in this sport, though he was stymied at the end with a blown engine.
Plus, for a while Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked ready to snap that two-year losing streak. He led 146 laps, more than anyone else in the 500-lapper.
“We had a little different setup than we’ve run here before, and I think we can make that work,” Earnhardt said. “That last run was the longest green flag run we had on tires. I ran too hard at the start of it, and used up my stuff, and didn’t have any tires at the end to hold them guys off. I should have been more patient.
“Jeff (Gordon) was patient, and I got by him, and I thought ‘All right now, I can get these other guys on old tires….’
“But I just burned it up, so we didn’t get the finish we could have had….or needed to have.
“We got a good finish, and I’m real happy about that. We led a lot, so we can’t be too upset.
“The wins will come. We just have to be patient, and be happy, and mindful about the points we are getting in this stretch (he’s fourth in the standings, just 69 out of the lead).
“We need to get a good base of points built up as early as we can, in case we have any kind of struggles in mid-season. So we’re just trying to be guarded and smart.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Elliott Sadler sucked it and went the distance, all 3-1/2 hours of it Sunday. For a guy with a sudden bad back, that was remarkable.
“I feel pretty good,” he said after finishing 15th. “I took a few Tylenol and I felt great when the race was on.
“I’m a little sore. I’ll definitely be feeling this in the morning.”
On the temper front in Sunday’s Martinsville 500: Matt Kenseth was penalized two laps for overly aggressive driving after punting David Gilliland into the wall.
“Every time we made up a little ground, we kept getting wrecked, or wrecked,” Kenseth griped.
“We were so far off in the beginning, and then I got spun out on pit road and pitted out of the box, and that cost us a lap, and it took us 200 laps to get that back. Then we really ran pretty good but we just kept getting run into.”
Jacques Villeneuve, whose NASCAR career is on hold, will be back in a NASCAR-type stocker next weekend….in Bahrain, in the Saturday SpeedCar race, for made-in-North Carolina stock cars, as part of the weekend’s Formula One event.
The SpeedCar series, ostensibly promoted by a Frenchman and a Bahrainian, is for ex-Formula One stars, in something of an IROC series at several F1 venues as Saturday companion events, in a pair of 120-mile sprints.
Jamie McMurray has been hearing the rumors and the murmurs, after his slow start to the season. But Sunday he was prime-time, with a shot to win the Martinsville 500, certainly with a good shot at a top-five, though he faded to eighth down the stretch.
But it was enough to get his team back in to the top-35 in points, locking him into a starting spot this week at Texas.
“I had to race those guys a little bit differently than I would have if we hadn’t been in that situation,” McMurray said about the points. “When guys got under me, I would just let them go, because we had to finish well so we could have a little buffer in the points when we go to Texas.
“We have not run well at the 1-1/2-mile tracks….Jimmie Johnson has been in the same boat…obviously not as far off as we have been. But we’ve tried to run what Carl (Edwards, his teammate) has run for a setup, and we went to Nashville and Carl actually drove my car and we didn’t like the same thing.
“So I think when we get to Texas, with what we learned at our Nashville test, we should unload fast. I feel we’ll run well at Texas.”