Martinsville Speedway in Virginia might be an oval like the majority of NASCAR race tracks but is a very unique example. For a start the lap length is just 925 yards (846 metres) so roughly every 460 yards the car has to make a tight left-hand turn. The speed in the turn falls to between 55 and 60 mph and together with the short straights combine to make one of NASCAR’s slowest lap speeds of about 90 mph.

Martinsville is also very much a one line track. Cars on the inside have the fastest route around the track they call the Paperclip and on the double-file restarts from caution periods the drivers on the outside line have to try to drop down to the preferred inside line. Inevitably the drivers on the inside do all they can to prevent creating the gaps for the cars on the high side to squeeze in to so it is normal for a driver who restarts in, say, second place to drop like a stone back through the field before he manages to force his way down to the inside and away from the “marbles” that sit all around the outside of the track.

So how do drivers at Martinsville get to overtake their competitors? Simple. Stay firmly on the tail of the car ahead and the instant that car leaves the slightest gap or slides fractionally high tap its left rear wing and create sufficient room to draw alongside. Stay there through the next bend or two and the position is won. It is a fact of life when racing at this circuit that the majority of cars finish with signs of crash damage of varying degrees. None worse on Sunday evening than the Toyotas of Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. after their fearsome and fiery collision on lap 221 caused when the latter’s throttle jammed open. It is at moments like this that one realises the term a “slow” track is a relative term and the ferocity of the impact caused a twenty-five minute red flag stoppage as the spilled fluids were cleared and the “soft” outer wall repaired. Happily both drivers emerged from their wrecks unharmed and accepting it was an unfortunate racing incident.

Pre-race favourites, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, who between them have won the last nine Sprint Cup Series races at Martinsville, both fell foul of the vagaries of the track, dropping back in to the field when starting on the outside, failing to adapt their cars to the changing surface as it rubbered in and, in Johnson’s case, speeding on to pitlane at the final caution and having to drop to the tail of the lead lap with just fifteen miles left to race. They succeeded in being the last two to finish on the lead lap with Johnson ahead in eleventh place.

At the head of the field Kyle Busch led away at the final green flag but was passed eight laps later and the majority of fans held their collective breath as they hoped their favourite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would finally break his run of nearly one hundred races without a win. As Junior Nation gloried in their man leading the race the driver with a growing reputation as the best closer in the business, Kevin Harvick, was running Junior down. Through lapped traffic Harvick seemed to get the better run and once in clean air had the marginally faster car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. came withing four laps of ending a 98 race winless streak

After the race Harvick said, “I hated to be the bad guy here (beating the fans’ favourite) but we’re in it to win it.” With just four laps – about two miles – to the checkered flag the no. 88 National Guard Chevrolet slid fractionally wide and that was all Harvick needed to get the nose of his Budweiser Chevy alongside and then past. In those last few laps Harvick opened up a small gap to Earnhardt who then came under intense pressure from Kyle Busch but Junior held on to take second place by two hundredths of a second. Harvick’s win was the first for Richard Childress Racing at Martinsville since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s win there in 1995.

Busch’s third place was enough to take him to the top of the Sprint Cup Series championship table, five points ahead of former leader Carl Edwards. Jimmie Johnson climbed two places to third ahead of Kurt Busch and Harvick’s win sees him into the top five. The Stewart-Haas Racing teammates of Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman suffered most in the reshuffle, both losing four places to sixth for Newman and tenth for the team co-owner. The overall effect of the standings is to compress the drivers closer together with just twenty points separating first and eighth places.

The next race in the series will be on Saturday at the one and a half mile Texas Motor Speedway. Both races there were won by Hamlin in 2010 and if last year’s championship contender is to get his challenge for the 2011 title underway he will need a strong result.