NASCAR Sprint Cup: Martinsville Preview

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Pop quiz time.

What's 64.5 inches long and 4 inches high and is going to dominate the NASCAR race at Martinsville this weekend?

a) The legendary Martinsville hotdog b) the rear spoiler, appearing on the COT for the first time, or c) Jimmie Johnson's ego.

If you answered a) you're hungry, if you answered c) you're wrong, but possibly only on size.

Yes it's b). NASCAR's most historic venue is to play host of the first line in anew chapter of the series as the Sprint Cup Series says 'goodbye' to the wing, and welcomes the spoiler back with open arms.

The reintroduction of the spoiler – set at a fixed 70° – sees the rear of the COT revert to a more conventional NASCAR look was announced in January, the series labelling it as “back by popular demand”. After tests at Talladega and Charlotte the opinion of the drivers is almost entirely positive.

“I really like the spoiler,” says Carl Edwards. “I think it looks great, I think it's a great move. The fans are going to like it and it doesn't seem to make the car feel much different.”

“The car has a lot of grip with the tyre combination and the spoiler,” adds points leader Kevin Harvick, dispelling the myths (or expectations) that the change alters the handling of car. “So it drives really good and we went right to work on the things that we needed to because we felt comfortable with the car.”

But while the handling of the car may be crucial at tracks such as Charlotte at Martinsville the emphasis is much more on the driver, as the tight flat corners of the season's shortest track test patience and put a premium on track position.

And with that in mind it should come as no surprise as to the man most likely this weekend “I think when we go to Martinsville we're one of probably three of four guys that you have to put a favourite,” admits Jimmie Johnson. “[Denny Hamlin]'s been on pace, [Jeff Gordon]'s gonna be good there. [Juan Montoya] has gotten good there.”

Johnson is a seemingly irresistible force at Martinsville having not finished outside the top ten for eight years and in a season when the four-time champion already seems to have hit the vein of form he normally only finds in September it is, no matter how much he protests, almost impossible to see any car in victory lane, other than the no.48. Again.

The other thing that should come as no surprise, especially after the short track opener at Bristol last weekend, is that bumpers are often called into use, the new car (with or without spoiler) only encouraging it, according to veteran Mark Martin, another man who Johnson lists as a potential challenger.

“Martinsville is not as hard on equipment now as it used to be,” Martin says, harking back across a career that makes him the most experienced full-time driver in the series. “We don't have as many devastating accidents. You know, you [still] tear a fender up, you push this in, you mash that, but we used to tear up the cars up a little bit worse.”

However, despite this expect to see plenty of damage, the customary 'rear gear' failure brought on by the tight racing and probably at least one driver reprise Marcos Ambrose's 'missing sheet metal special' from last weekend.

In a weekend in which so much is changing, it may all look depressingly familiar, but if you are even contemplating skipping watching the race, let the man whose name you dread tell you why you shouldn't.

“This is racing, and anything can and will happen. We're off to a good start but we've all seen enough teams rise and fall. You can never just hand it to anybody.”

That man, should you need telling, is Jimmie Johnson.

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