NASCAR & Auto Racing

Questions persist about NASCAR's plans, impact for Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - It's the smallest, oldest track in NASCAR, a place where the roots of racing are evident all around, and converge with some of the newest amenities.

But in the new media center last weekend, the questions still came, leaving track president Clay Campbell shaking his head as driver after driver was asked:

"Do you think it's inevitable that Martinsville Speedway will lose a date?"

The queries come as surely as leaves turn in the fall and sprout in spring.

"I'd love to go through one race weekend where I don't do interview after interview talking about the possibility of us losing one of our dates," Campbell said Wednesday.

The good news for the man whose grandfather built the 0.526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval more than 60 years ago is that he knows many drivers are among the track's biggest supporters.

The bad news is that drivers have almost no say in NASCAR's scheduling.

Jeff Burton, who grew up about 60 miles from Martinsville, thinks the track's history and distinctiveness make it special, and worthy of its spots on the schedule in the spring and fall.

"I do think it is important to embrace our history, to embrace the past, and this is a great way to do that," he said. "There is no other track that we race on that is like this.

"I think it belongs. We aren't the ones that get to vote on where we are going to race. They don't ask us, but as far as I'm concerned, we have to have places like this because I think it reminds us of where we have come from, and I really think that is important."

Clint Bowyer, Burton's teammate with Richard Childress Racing, agrees, and thinks more factors than the size of a track and potential economic impact should be considered.

And in cases where the difference is great, he said, which one performs best in terms of attendance?

"I don't want to get in trouble, but look at California," Bowyer said of the 1.99-mile track in Fontana, Calif. "That's a long way away. We're not filling the grandstands there."

The grandstands at Auto Club Speedway hold 92,000, Martinsville about 65,000.

"This place is rich in history, and it's a part of NASCAR. It's been a part of it for a long, long time. I think if I was going to pull one away," he said, "I'd look towards California or doing something different there (rather than) pulling something from here."

Performance at a track also weighs into how much a driver likes racing there.

Carl Edwards has never won at Martinsville, and his third-place run last weekend was by far his best. Not surprisingly, he's not as enamored of the trickiest half-mile.

"It's a great place to race. I just haven't had the luck here," he said.

Count the trio at Hendrick Motorsports - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - among those that want Martinsville to stay, or at least a short track just like it.

"Obviously I'd be very disappointed" said Gordon, a four-time series champion and a series-high seven-time winner at Martinsville. "I feel like this is one of my best tracks."

Johnson thinks likewise, probably because he's won four of the past five Sprint Cup races in southwest Virginia, while Earnhardt Jr. thinks the beating and banging, short-track style of racing is more critical to the Sprint Cup Series than the speedway itself.

He and many other drivers have spent years wondering out loud why seemingly every new venue built in the past few decades is virtually the same - a cookie-cutter 1.5-mile oval.

"I think that somebody really needs to kind of wake up a little bit and see what is going on there," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Get some more short tracks back on this series."

Or, in the mind of Campbell, stop trying to move away from the ones already in use. Martinsville, Richmond and Bristol routinely offer some of the closest racing in the series.

He said the topic of losing a date has never come up with NASCAR.

"As far as NASCAR is concerned, Martinsville is a very special place," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. "Martinsville Speedway has done more to build NASCAR than just about any other place. There have been no requests to move any dates from NASCAR, however, the best thing fans can do is to continue to buy tickets and pack the stands."

In recent years, before and after Campbell sold the track to International Speedway Corp., Martinsville had spent millions on improvements. It drilled a tunnel under the track to allow access to the infield by foot during a race, constructed a garage that is roomy enough for teams to comfortably work on their cars in preparation for a race and low profile enough that it doesn't obstruct the fans' view, and this year, the spacious new infield media center.

For some, though, it seems it will never be enough.