AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Start Your Engines
The Sprint Cup Series' recent short-track doubleheader suited several drivers and teams just fine. Jimmie Johnson scored his annual win at Martinsville and ended a drought for Chevrolet. Ryan Newman and Mark Martin, big names with big problems in the first four races, scored consecutive top-10s. Denny Hamlin finished second twice, putting him at the top of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, at least in points.
Then there was Roush Fenway Racing, which decided to bypass the two bullrings entirely.
OK, the circuit's only five-car team was there, but did little more than take up precious infield parking spaces. At Bristol, only Carl Edwards (15th) finished in the top 25, and at Martinsville, Jamie McMurray's 10th-place finish was the lone highlight. All told, the RFR cars had an average finish of 30.2 at Bristol and 22.8 at Martinsville.
That's almost hard to do, short of start-and-parking the entire bunch -- which may have crossed Jack Roush's mind at some point over the past two weeks.
Fortunately for the Roush stable, the Cup schedule is never far from a visit to a 1.5-mile track, and this week it lands at one of Roush Fenway's favorite stops. God bless Texas.
Texas Motor Speedway's quirky 1.5-mile oval has been kind to RFR in its 12 years. The team won the first Texas race (Jeff Burton, 1997), the last race (Edwards, November 2008) and five more in between. That's 7-for-16 in all.
"The [intermediate] speedways take your whole team, the aerodynamics, the engines, the driver and crew chief. It takes everything," said Edwards, a three-time winner at Texas, including a sweep last season. "It shows up at these tracks."
The 1.5-mile configurations are often lumped together as "cookie-cutter" layouts, but the label doesn't fit in at Fort Worth. Its closest relative may be Atlanta, another intermediate with speedy high banks, but TMS's quirks make it unique.
"Texas is different than many of the other tracks we race at in the way that the track flattens out off of Turn 2 onto the backstretch," said Greg Biffle, winner of the 2005 spring race. "The track flattens dramatically off of the turn while at other tracks there is still a little banking on the straightaways. Turns 3 and 4 are completely different than Turns 1 and 2."
Biffle, third in points last year behind Johnson and Edwards, took the biggest hit in points during Roush's short-track disappearing act. Biffle went into Bristol 10th in points but left Martinsville in 23rd after runs of 39th and 28th. Matt Kenseth took the second-biggest hit, falling from fifth to 12th in the standings, seven points inside the Chase cutoff. His 33rd- and 23rd-place efforts brought back no memories of the first two races of the seasons, both wins for the No. 17.
But those struggles can be written off as mulligans with a return to form on the intermediates. When you're talking title, there's no substitute for power on the 1.5-mile joints.
"The drivers here at Roush Fenway seem to suit those 1.5-mile tracks really well, and all the drivers in our group seem to always perform well at these types of tracks," said McMurray, 22nd in points. "I just think that Texas is a great track for this company, and I'm sure that we'll see similar performance this weekend once again."
A certain owner in a straw hat sure hopes so, after two weeks of the alternative.
Jimmie Johnson: The No. 48 Hendrick Chevy at Martinsville is like Tiger Woods at Augusta. Take them against the rest of the field in a wager and you won't sweat out too many Sunday afternoons.
The rest of the garage shouldn't lose sleep anymore over Johnson's dominating the paper clip, but a more pressing concern should be that the three-time champion's usual early- to mid-season slump may not materialize this year. He's fourth in points, has four top-10s in five starts and has led double-digit laps everywhere but Daytona.
"We're in a great position this year. Last year, we had to fight all season long to catch up," Johnson said. "The last two or three weeks we've really not made any big mistakes and have hit our stride and got to Victory Lane."
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
You Gotta See This
The rest of Hendrick Motorsports: Sunday at Martinsville was a catchall cure in more ways than just Johnson winning and finally putting Chevy in the win column for '09. That was little surprise, as was Jeff Gordon's fourth-place day, good enough to maintain an 89-point cushion atop the Sprint Cup standings.
But getting Mark Martin (seventh) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (eighth) solidly in the top 10 was a welcome feat. It shouldn't be that rare for the powerhouse team, but it is so far this year. For both veterans, Martinsville marked only their second top-10 of the season, and both are outside the top 12 in points, with Junior in 16th and Martin in 27th.
"I think Mark's been competitive every week, and the 88 [Earnhardt] has," Rick Hendrick said. "They're making some good progress."
Off The Pace
Martin Truex Jr.: Remember when the No. 1 Chevrolet won the pole for the Daytona 500? Might have been the last time its driver flashed a broad smile.
Martinsville was another bad day in a season rapidly filling with them. Truex has only one top-10 -- a 10th at Atlanta -- and four finishes of 26th or worse, including 26th and 29th in the short-track races. He had six such races all of last season.
Some of the misery probably can be hung on the unusual new Earnhardt Ganassi operation, but that doesn't excuse a driver of Truex's caliber sitting 28th in points.
Inside The Numbers
28 -- Laps led by Edwards last month at Atlanta
3 -- Laps led by Edwards in season's other five races
1 -- Win from the pole at Texas (Kasey Kahne, 2006)
0 -- Wins this season by cars starting from the pole
14 -- DNFs this season due to engine failure
0 -- Engine failures by Dodges