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NASCAR WEEKEND PREVIEW: Under the radar and in the lead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. swoops into Martinsville
The layoff may have allowed tempers to calm a bit after flaring up during the last two races that saw several drivers mix it up on and off the track. Whether or not drivers choose to mind their P's and Q's during Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500 (1:00 p.m. ET, FOX) is anybody's guess -- but the tight quarters of Martinsville likely won't extinguish any fiery tempers.
Thirty of the last 32 races held at the smallest track (.526 miles) on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit have featured double-digit number of caution flags, with a track record 21 (for 127 caution laps) in the October 2007 race.
With all that took place at Bristol and Auto Club Speedway, the fact that the sport's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has taken a 12-point lead over reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski has been slightly overshadowed. However, the 38-year-old driver from Kannapolis, N.C., doesn't mind.
"I feel like [the lack of attention] gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do," said Earnhardt. "We're not winning races, and I don't expect to get much attention until we can win races.
"You know, if we go out and win some races, we'll get credit where credit is due, but we ran well, we've gotten lucky, we've had good cars, we've worked hard. ... I wouldn't expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is."
Earnhardt's ascension to the zenith of the leaderboard after the Auto Club Speedway race marks the first time in his career where he's held the top position in the standings in two consecutive seasons. He was first in the points after the 20th and 21st races of last season. The only other season he held the lead was in 2004.
Although Earnhardt has never visited Victory Lane at Martinsville in 26 attempts, the small track in southwest Virginia is one of his best venues statistically. He has led more laps there (868) than at any other track. His average finishing position of 13.0 at Martinsville is his third best, behind only Bristol (11.6) and Atlanta (12.5). His 14 top-10 finishes there ranks second only to Daytona, where he's posted 15 top 10s.
Earnhardt's driver rating (99.8) at Martinsville is a personal best, and fourth among active drivers behind only seven-time winners Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and four-time winner Denny Hamlin. Additionally, Earnhardt has more green-flag passes (917) than any other active driver.
As tough as it is for a veteran driver to win in Martinsville, Earnhardt knows it's even tougher for a rookie to come away with a decent finish. He knows because he's experienced the same growing pains.
"I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything," said Earnhardt. "I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars, just about everything that could be ran into, I found it.
"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."
Sunday's race will feature the two Sunoco Rookie of the Year leaders (tied with 54 points), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick, both of whom have never turned a lap at Martinsville. For Patrick, her appearance will mark the first time a female has appeared in a NASCAR Sprint Cup event at the track.
FANTASY FOCUS: If you're looking to bolster your fantasy team in time for this weekend's race, look no further than two of Earnhardt's teammates, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Both veterans lead all active drivers with seven wins apiece at Martinsville and have the highest two driver ratings. In the past eight years, Johnson has the best average finishing position (6.2), most quality passes (583), most laps in the top 15 (7,349) and laps led (1,810) at the track. In addition, six of his seven wins here have come in the past eight years. Gordon has won twice at Martinsville in the past eight years, and has a series-high among active drivers with seven poles, 25 top fives and 32 top 10s in 40 career starts. Tony Stewart is also a solid pick this weekend with three wins, 15 top 10s and a driver rating of 99.7.
After five-week layoff the trucks return to action
More than a month has flown by since the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series hit the track at Daytona for the season opener. But this Saturday, the trucks awake from their slumber to pound the pavement at Martinsville for the Kroger 250 (1:30 p.m. ET, SPEED).
When the trucks arrive at the short track, Daytona champion Johnny Sauter will bring with him a six-point lead over Ron Hornaday Jr. and Justin Lofton. Sauter hopes his success at one of the circuit's largest tracks will carry over to the series' smallest track, where he has one victory, coming in the 2011 Kroger 250.
Most of the drivers are looking forward to finally returning to the track after the time off.
"I'm glad that we are finally getting back to racing; everyone is itching to get going again," said James Buescher, the 2012 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. "All the guys in the shop have been staying busy during the break building new trucks and prepping for test sessions."
In the 28 races the trucks have competed on the paper-clip-shaped track, three drivers share the lead with the most wins (three): Kevin Harvick, Dennis Setzer and Mike Skinner. Of those three, only Harvick will crawl through the window of a truck this weekend for the start of the Martinsville race.
Harvick is the defending winner of the race and has won it three of the past four seasons. He will drive the No. 24 NTS Motorsports Tide Chevrolet as teammate to four-time series champion Hornaday and Brennan Newberry.
In 21 races at Martinsville, Hornaday has 13 top 10s, more than any other driver currently scheduled to compete in Saturday's race, to go along with one win.
Todd Bodine, Joey Coulter, Matt Crafton, Timothy Peters and David Starr have all had mild success at Martinsville and could find themselves in Victory Lane on Saturday afternoon.
Seven drivers will attempt to make their Martinsville truck debut this weekend: Jonathan Davenport, Chase Elliott, Grant Galloway, Kenny Habul, Devin Jones, Erik Jones, German Quiroga Jr. and Darrell Wallace Jr.