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Martinsville rookies face rude introduction

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Martinsville rookies face rude introduction
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Martinsville rookies face rude introduction

If it was there, he hit it. Other race cars. Walls. Pace vehicles. Even an ambulance on an access road.

"The ambulance wouldn't move," Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembered, "so I had to give him a bit of the bumper."

A blown tire, three spins, a car pieced together with duct tape after hitting just about everything in the vicinity -- that afternoon in the fall of 2000 proved a rough orientation to Martinsville Speedway for one rookie driver on NASCAR's top circuit. It got so bad that car owner Dale Earnhardt ordered the No. 8 team to pack it up early, a fact his son learned on the helicopter ride home.

"It's a funny story, thinking back on it now," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But yeah, those first few trips were a real eye-opener. The racing there is nothing what you imagine, even coming up through those style of race tracks. It's just really tough and hard racing, and you've got to pick your battles. But it's a long race, and you can really just take yourself out of it early if you're not careful." 

The speeds may be relatively low and the setting may be downright quaint, but beneath that charming exterior sits a short track capable of devouring drivers not familiar with it. Earnhardt had one (albeit arduous) previous start there and even came up on late model short tracks not unlike the flat half-mile oval, and was still chewed up and spit out. It all stands as a cautionary tale for the handful of drivers who this weekend are heading to the facility for the first time.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have never turned a lap at Martinsville in a national-series event. Neither have Camping World Truck Series drivers Darrell Wallace Jr., Jonathan Davenport, Grant Galloway, Devin Jones, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones -- the latter four of whom are teenagers. If history is any indication, all of them could be in for a rude introduction to a raw-knuckled short track that demands patience, but doesn't do much to promote it.

Earnhardt knows that firsthand. Like many drivers who came up racing late models on short tracks, he thought skills sharpened at places like Myrtle Beach Speedway would translate to Martinsville. And today, they do -- statistically, it's one of his best tracks, even if he has yet to win there. But back in his rookie season, the place seemed more like an alien landscape, and acted equally as inhospitable.

"I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything. I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars. Just about everything that could be ran into, I found it," Earnhardt said. "And you know, it was real frustrating, because I had thought of myself as a short-track driver, and I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast, and this should be where I excel the most.

"But short-track racing can really allow you to get carried away with yourself, and you forget ?? even now, even last year, we would run 100 laps and I'd have the car torn all to hell down both sides and have to remind myself, this is a longer event than you realize, and you've really got to preach patience to yourself and really rein in your emotions and your excitement, because you just really want to get in there and gouge every corner. But there's just not enough race car to do that for 500 miles."

In time, Earnhardt discovered that the get-to-the-front tactics that worked in shorter late model events didn't necessarily carry over, even if the venues shared many of the same characteristics. Martinsville also demands a level of car management -- staying off the brakes, keeping fenders clean -- that isn't necessarily a priority at lower levels.

"We've all grown up racing short tracks, half mile or less, and I don't think that that's so much the challenge as it is just managing your brakes, your car and putting yourself in position for the end of the race," said Ryan Newman, who won last year's spring race at Martinsville, and placed 41st there in his 2002 debut. "This I think is the toughest part. The toughest part for me was mostly adapting to using that middle pedal the least."

Rookies today, Newman said, may have a slight benefit in that the Generation-6 Sprint Cup car cools more effectively than its predecessors. But a driver like Patrick -- who will become the first woman to start a premier-series race at the facility -- may still be in for a wake-up call, particularly given that Martinsville hasn't hosted the Nationwide Series since 2006.

Patrick is optimistic after a recent test on the short track at Rockingham Speedway. "I thought we actually made some really big gains that day," she said. "It was fun." Patrick is even open to trying one of Martinsville's famous hot dogs -- a half of one, at least. But her crew chief knows that once the race begins, she'll be in for a totally different experience.

"It's a tough place," Tony Gibson said. "It's a tough place for any veteran to go, let alone a rookie. It's going to be a big challenge for her. It's worse than Bristol, because you're constantly in traffic and guys are constantly bumping into you and into the side of you. Martinsville will be her biggest challenge, for sure, and the focus will be just on finishing clean and learning as much as she can so we can prepare for the second time she goes to Martinsville in the fall. If she can do that, she'll be in good shape."

Martinsville has seen double-digit caution flags in 25 of its last 26 Sprint Cup events. Three-time series champion Tony Stewart, who owns Patrick's car, said he's never finished a race there without making contact with another car at some point. He wants to tell his driver everything he knows about the place -- but also realizes she's going to have to discover it all for herself.

"I'm sure there will be some things happen in the race that she's not ready for," said Stewart, who won the pole for his first Martinsville race before finishing 20th. "Ninety percent of the time it's accidental and doesn't lead to a wreck, but you get bumped, and that's something that she's not really used to yet. ? Just like anybody else's first trip to Martinsville, it's definitely a learning experience, and you can definitely leave (there) with a headache trying to figure out what you needed to do differently."

It's a timeless struggle, and one befitting the oldest facility on NASCAR's top circuit. Driving in, "nothing has changed," Earnhardt said. "You park your car in the driveway of the first house on the corner. That house has been there for I don't know how many years." The track's entrance, he added, brings him back to the 1970s. Without the souvenir rigs and the cars in the parking lots, you'd be hard-pressed to tell what decade it was.

"I love race tracks like that," he said. He even found something to love about that rotten Martinsville race he suffered through during his rookie season. At one point he restarted on the inside a lap down, and roared off to a straightaway-length advantage over the leaders. It was a sign of things to come at a track where Earnhardt now owns more top-five finishes and more laps led than anywhere else. And 13 years ago, it was a small bright spot in what would become a 36th-place finish.

"I was so proud of myself, and that's the only thing I took away from the race, and I kept trying to talk about that on the way home," Earnhardt said. "But all Dad wanted to talk about was how much I ran over, and how I needed to really learn how to run better on the short tracks."

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