Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Martinsville could cure NASCAR's ills

MARTINSVILLE - For NASCAR, this race couldn't get here fast enough.

The 2012 Sprint Cup season has been off-kilter from the start. Consider:

*  Rain forced the Daytona 500 to a day other than Sunday for the first time in the history of the event.

It was a Tuesday morning - and many fans were in bed - when stock car's most prestigious race finally ended.

*  Early-season races that were must-see events for decades no longer are. You can't count on Bristol for that big jolt of drama any more - and fans know it. Empty seats were the biggest story when the circuit visited that hallowed bullring two weeks ago.

* The people who stayed away were prescient. The Bristol race was so boring that the track owner announced this week that he'll be making wholesale changes before the series visits again in the fall.

*  California? Snoozefest. Last week's race at Fontana didn't have a single caution - unless you count the one that came out for rain, which ended the event 71 laps from the scheduled finish.

*  Dale Earnhardt Jr. still hasn't won. Jeff Gordon's struggling. The star many picked to have a breakout, championship-caliber season - Kasey Kahne - so far has not.

Enter Martinsville Speedway. And a lot of the ills can disappear for at least one day.

The weather forecast is excellent: 75 degrees, minimal chance of rain. The forecast for great racing is even better.

Three reasons why today's race could be one of the best of the season, giving the sport a much-needed shot of adrenaline:

Star power

One thing you typically can count on at Martinsville is that the drivers battling up front will be guys you know. Johnson's great here. Denny Hamlin's great here. Gordon's great here.

Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick - they all have a legitimate shot to win. And if they do, it likely won't be a fluke. They'll have to earn it.

The potential of Earnhardt winning, particularly at a track so close to his North Carolina home, is NASCAR's greatest allure. But attractive, too, would be Gordon recapturing his Martinsville mojo. He was sizzling in Friday's practice and desperately needs a good finish to make up for multiple gaffes in the season's first five races.

Increased parity

While identifying the contenders is easy, predicting the winner is not. Martinsville has evolved. Once the playground of Gordon and Johnson alone, it became Hamlin's track for three straight races starting in the fall of 2009.

"There was a stretch of time where we couldn't mess it up here," Johnson said. "And then things kind of changed."

The track - and its fans - have been better for it. Martinsville produced two different winners last year in Harvick and Stewart.

Double-file restarts and multiple grooves have served this track well, as finishes have been tight in recent years. Expect another one today.

Guaranteed contact

There's no way to avoid it here. Cars are going to collide. Tempers are likely to flare. And a repeat of last week's caution-starved race will not happen.

"It's just a part of racing here - beating and banging a little bit," Martin Truex Jr. said. "Obviously, you don't try to run people over, but any time during the race, you're going to be running into somebody or getting run into. It's just the way it is here."

Concentration is paramount. The slightest error can cause a crash. A crash can cause a controversy.

"You have to be very precise even though we're going slow," points leader Greg Biffle said. "You can get your feathers ruffled pretty easily at this racetrack."

And that's what NASCAR needs: a few ruffled feathers. A few stars battling it out at the end in front of thousands of fans on their feet.

In other words, it needs a typical afternoon at Martinsville Speedway.

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