Martinsville Dynasty

April 29th, 1984 Geoff Bodine won the spring race at Martinsville. That Bodine won wasn’t too remarkable as he’d run well at Martinsville in his modified car before moving south to join the Cup tour. But that win was the first win for Rick Hendrick as a car owner and it was only that team’s eighth start. Back in that era most race teams were still owned by former racers so the idea some millionaire who made his fortune with a chain of car dealerships was going to come into the sport and compete with the like of Junior Johnson, the Woods, or the Pettys was thought unlikely. But Bodine went on to win three races that season running for Hendrick and finished ninth in the points.

In 1986 Hendrick once again bucked conventional wisdom and started a second team. As odd as it seems in this era where multi-car teams dominate, back in the 70s and 80s most drivers didn’t want to drive for a multi-car team fearing the resources would be stretched too thin to win. And Hendrick choice a rather unusual driver for that second team as well, a long haired guy from Ohio of all places that went by the name of Tim Richmond. Over the years in addition to Bodine, Hendrick has had a lot of great drivers on his roster. Tim Richmond lit up the Winston Cup circuit like few ever have in the later part of 1986 and finished third in the series points. Darrell Waltrip once won three consecutive Martinsville fall races running for Rick. Terry Labonte won a championship driving for the team in 1996. Ricky Rudd finished second in the points in 1991 driving for another Hendrick team. Counting Sunday’s race Hendrick now has 110 victories as a car owner in the Cup series.

Sixty-two of those wins have been scored by Hendrick’s most successful driver to date, Jeff Gordon who won for the fourth time at Martinsville Sunday driving for Hendrick. It’s hard to believe that how the sport or this team has evolved over roughly the last two decades and even his detractors have to admit Jeff Gordon has inarguably been a huge influence on the sport over the last ten years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have supplanted Gordon as the new face of NASCAR, but Earnhardt needs about 56 more wins and four championships before he catches up with Gordon.

Ironically in the waning stages of the race, it was indeed Earnhardt Jr. Gordon needed to run down for the victory. That might have been a battle for the ages but fate intervened when Ricky Craven cut down a tire on a restart and got into the side of the 8 car allowing Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to storm past him. There had to be some wide grins at NASCAR control as four of the sports most popular and well regarded drivers waged an epic battle for the last forty laps of the race. That’s one way to get people to stop dwelling on that little mix up at Talladega. Gordon tried every trick in his not inconsiderable arsenal to get around Labonte but finally resorted to that short track classic, the chrome horn, applied just hard enough to move a driver out of his way without spinning that other driver out. From that point on Labonte kept Earnhardt and Stewart at bay letting Gordon drive off to a relatively comfortable victory in short track terms.

There was a time in his career Bobby Labonte really struggled on short tracks but he seems to be getting the knack of it lately. Last year his only victory came at Martinsville. This year Labonte is the only driver with a pair of top five finishes in the two short track races run to date. He put that streak on the line in three weeks time at Richmond. The two tire gamble worked for Labonte in this race last year, but he came up just a little bit short on Sunday.

After a slow start to the season that had many pundits writing off his title chances for the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on a roll as of late, with five top 6 finishes in the last seven races. The title bout heating up between Junior and Matt Kenseth is very reminiscent of the battles the two had for the Busch title back in 1998 and 1999. While Kenseth had a rare off day Sunday at Martinsville with seven top 10 finishes in nine races run to date this season, Kenseth is setting the bar high for Junior.

Jeff Burton scored his first top 5 finish of the 2003 season Sunday. Burton’s last surge to the front got a little physical at times and it would probably be best not to seat Burton beside Jimmie Johnson at Easter dinner next weekend.

If Burton and Johnson scuffled, Elliott Sadler and Tony Stewart out and out brawled. Racing to the caution flag Stewart must have assumed the gentleman’s agreement that’s been talked about so much over the last few weeks applied to the last green flag lap of the race. Burton muscled his way past, but Stewart and Sadler collided hard, flattening a tire on the 20 car. Afterwards Stewart repeatedly rammed the rear bumper of the 38 car to express his displeasure. (At which point photographers in the area went into hiding.) Sadler had never run well at his “home track” so a fifth place result was a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

Sterling Marlin actually led a portion of the race thanks to pit strategy. While his time at the front was short-lived Marlin did manage to hold for a top ten finish.

Rusty Wallace was once the master of Martinsville. Sunday he could manage no better than an eighth place finish and Wallace has now been locked out of victory lane for two years. Drivers and teams that hit a dry spell are often told not to panic, but it would seem a certain degree of panic is called for in evaluating what’s gone wrong with the 2 team.

Jimmie Johnson was clearly displeased with Jeff Burton after the race. It seems lately that Johnson has been involved in a lot of late race incidents that cost him positions in the final rundown.

If Rusty Wallace’s winless drought is troubling at two years in length, imagine Ken Schrader’s predicament. He last won at Dover in 1991 long before some of the drivers he’s competing against were able to drive legally on the street. But Schrader managed a credible qualifying effort on Friday and parlayed that into a top 10 finish on Sunday, his first top 10 since the 2000 Southern 500. Hopefully the winnings will allow the team to buy sufficient paint to cover that unsightly blemish on their hood.

While it’s too early to pick a favorite there’s an epic championship battle heating up. Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. have done this before in the Busch series. While he was MIA on Sunday, Kurt Busch means to have a dog in the fight. Tony Stewart typically comes on strong late in the season. And there’s no counting out Sunday’s winner, Jeff Gordon, who is now third in the points.

A lot has changed in our sport since 1984. While Hendrick was once the exception a growing number of Cup team owners are now guys who made their fortunes outside of racing. (In some cases, they made a fortune outside of racing and seem determined to lose that fortune in racing.) Multi-car teams now dominate the sport. (Schrader was the only driver with a top 10 finish today who is part of a single car effort.) Certainly Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon have influenced a lot of those changes. But some things have remained the same. At fifty-six years of age Martinsville still provides some of the best racing on the circuit, thrill-a-minute side by side competition with fenders clanging, tires smoking and drivers getting bright red in the face in the heat of combat. As a dispassionate observer it might appear the best way NASCAR can “enhance shareholder value” is to find a way to add some more short tracks to the schedule.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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