- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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At the rate he's going, Jeff Gordon might want to consider selling grandfather clocks once he retires from racing. He certainly has enough of them already.
Gordon has won five grandfather clocks -- the traditional trophy for winning a Nextel Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. He added two to his collection last season, winning both races at Cup racing's shortest track, the .526-mile southern Virginia layout.
And if this weekend's Advance Auto Parts 500 is anything like last year's two races at Martinsville, pole-winner Gordon should make it an even half-dozen clocks by the end of Sunday's race.
"I've almost lost count of how many grandfather clocks I've won, it's been so many," Gordon said, laughing at his Martinsville mastery. "We love going back there and racing. It takes me back to my short-track days. I love racing at the place."
Gordon returns to Martinsville fresh from a one-week vacation, as well as a third-place finish in the last race two weeks ago at Texas. Had it not been for a faulty alternator that drained the primary battery on his No. 24 Chevrolet, Gordon could very well have overtaken eventual winner Elliott Sadler for the checkered flag.
But because he momentarily fumbled while trying to switch over to the backup battery, Gordon lost out on earning his first win of 2004.
Now it's time for Gordon to pick up where he left off. He won twice at Martinsville last season and once at Atlanta (he also won poles at Watkins Glen and Bristol). And to say he dominated at Martinsville is an understatement. Not only did he sweep both races, he also won the pole for each event and led 503 of a possible 1,000 total laps.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg for Gordon, who cut his racing teeth on short tracks such as Martinsville. In 22 career starts there, he not only has the victory quintet, but also owns four poles, 12 top-five and four other top-10 finishes.
And even though there are a lot of rumors floating around about the long-term viability of Martinsville Speedway in NASCAR's new world view, Gordon hopes the sanctioning body will maintain the status quo here.
"I pretty much grew up on short tracks and I really enjoy short-track competition," Gordon said. "I think we need to have short tracks on our schedule, it offers the excitement that fans love to see.
"We need to have short tracks on our schedule. There are really only three (Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond). I would hate to see one go. I'm glad to see they're making improvements because it encourages me that we're keeping short tracks on the schedule. We can't have a series that's nothing but l.5-mile racetracks. We see how many people we pack in for Bristol and how exciting it is. Even though Martinsville isn't that same type of short track, it still offers that short-track excitement the fans love to see."
Going from Texas and the typical 180-plus mph bursts around its 1.5-mile layout to less than half that average speed at Martinsville -- Gordon holds the track record at a plodding 82.223 mph (in 3 hours, 11 minutes, 55 seconds) -- means teams have to totally change strategy.
What's more, Martinsville is one of the hardest tracks on parts, particularly when it comes to brake fade and tire wear.
"At short tracks in general, especially at Martinsville, the key is not to overdrive the corner," Gordon said. "Having good brakes is extremely important. That's one area where we have drastically improved since Robbie Loomis (crew chief) has come on board.
"But with a flat, sharp corner like Martinsville, it's very easy to drive too deep into the corner. When you do that, it just messes up the whole corner. It takes away your ability to roll through the center. It takes away your ability to drive straight up off the corner. That's one of the things I learned early on there. Maybe I brought a little bit of that from the short tracks that I grew up on."
Gordon enters this weekend hoping for the fifth so-called three-peat of his career. He's also won three in a row at Infineon Raceway (1997-1999), Darlington (fall 1995-96), Dover (fall 1995-1996) and Watkins Glen (1997-1999).
"I don't pay a whole lot of attention to the record books," Gordon said. "But after the last few years, it's not surprising that Martinsville is up there with places like Sonoma and Darlington as a place where we could win three consecutive races.
"The competition is so tough these days -- we're happy with a one-peat -- let alone a three-peat."
Gordon has had a strong but unspectacular season thus far, with five top-10 finishes in the first seven races. He's currently ninth in the standings heading into this weekend. And he's still searching for that first elusive trip to Victory Lane in '04.
"Our team is as strong as ever, we just haven't been able to capitalize a whole lot this season," Gordon said. "It's a long season but I know we're a team that works hard and we know what we're capable of.
"We're happy to get some momentum from Texas and take it to a track like Martinsville and get the critics off our back a little bit. We'll go to Martinsville and hopefully put it to these guys."
The criticism Gordon referenced was the fact many are saying Gordon and his team have lost focus this season. Of course, for most drivers, Gordon's season thus far has been quite good.
But Gordon isn't "most drivers," and he knows it all too well.
"No, it doesn't surprise me because we've set that bar," Gordon said. "We've set those expectations by the number of wins and championships and seasons we've had. We know where our focus is, but we also know we haven't lived up to our potential.
"We finally showed in Texas what we're capable of and that we are going to challenge for wins. Outsiders are quick to judge. It's a long season. We haven't gotten off to the season we've wanted either, but we are happy to get some momentum from Texas and take it to a great track like Martinsville."
While the season is only seven races old, teams are slowly but surely starting to think about the new "Chase for the Championship" points system that NASCAR has implemented for this season. While there's certainly a lot of racing action left between now and the 26th race -- the cut-off of having the top-10 drivers in points qualify for the 10-race final championship chase -- Gordon admits being in ninth place is somewhat of a concern.
"Absolutely," he said. "Right now I can't say we're looking at it a whole lot differently because basically it's about being consistent. Everybody is out there trying to win races and so are we, but we know that come Richmond (26th race) we've got to be in that Top 10. When we are we'd better be set on kill to go out there and lead laps and win races and you're going to have to have top five's every single weekend and have a lot of luck in order to win that championship."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
Everytime he wins at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon gets another grandfather clock. He's after his sixth on Sunday.