Martin has thrived at track he loves to hate


Mark Martin has two victories at at Martinsville Speedway to go with his remarkable 21 top-10 finishes.

And he could care less.

The veteran racer set to retire at the close of this season has never cloaked his dislike for the Virginia short track. Sure, Martin's back in the mix in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, just 51 points out. And yes, he could use a strong run on Sunday to bring him even closer to the prize. And granted, 21 top-10 finishes in 37 tries is a pretty great record.

Yet Martin would rather be in Pocono or Daytona or anywhere else this weekend.

"Martinsville is a place that I've always hated with a passion, but we've won two or three times there," he said. "I"ve always loved Pocono, but I've never won there, so what does that tell you. It's always been a thorn in my side as far as short tracks. People have always told me how well I run there, but it sure never feels that way. It can be physically demanding. Sometimes you leave there worn down, sometimes you feel fine. It's been a real challenge for me, because it really just doesn't fit my driving style."

As much as the Roush Racing driver dislikes the track, he wouldn't mind visiting Victory Lane there, though. And with its eyes on the big picture, the No. 6 team is hoping the track for which Martin has little love shows the team some love this weekend.

"It's a tough place to race and it's not really our favorite track in the Chase, but Mark has a good history there and it's a place where his skills do actually stand out," crew chief Pat Tryson said. "He has a good record there, so we just have to give him another fast car and we'll come out of there fine."

The favorite
Still, it'd be hard to call Martin the favorite to win. Although he's consistently strong, he hasn't won there since 2000 -- and he's never won at Martinsville in the fall.

Back in 2000, it was actually Tony Stewart who took home the checkered flag in Martinsville's fall race. And given his propensity for bouncing back after tough days, you can expect Stewart and the No. 20 team to turn in a solid effort following last weekend's tire-troubled outing at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Stewart has already posted some of the fastest practice laps and won the pole position for Sunday's Subway 500. Also, he's got the confidence from knowing he had the car to beat in this spring's event at Martinsville until his wheel broke. Plus, Stewart's being driven by the desire to create a little more separation in the points standings than the tie he has for the lead with Jimmie Johnson right now.

"Until you can get a full race lead on somebody," Stewart said, "nothing is comfortable at this point."

Riding the wave
Jimmie Johnson isn't exactly comfortable, but he's feeling infinitely better about the Chase after last weekend's victory at Lowe's vaulted him into a tie for first. It was his second victory in five Chase races so far, and fourth straight win at the Concord, N.C., track. Now, he looks to keep another streak alive: He's the defending champ of Sunday's race.

"Momentum is an important thing and we are happy to be already winning in the Chase," Johnson said. "Last year we won four and so far this year we won two races. So, all of this is coming at a good time. We had a slow couple of months before the Chase started but we definitely have things going in the right direction now.

"But, it is tough to carry momentum to a half-mile track from a mile-and-a-half track," Johnson cautioned. "The tracks are really different. Luckily for us [Martinsville] is a track where we have won before and we know how to race there and what to do. Hopefully we get everything under control and win the championship."

History on their side
Johnson is undeniably the most consistent Chase contender at Martinsville. In seven tries, he's got six top-10s and three top-fives -- not to mention his win. Still, he doesn't have the kind of history Rusty Wallace and Martin have. While Martin's 21 top-10s at Martinsville are impressive, Wallace's leads all Chasers with 25 top-10s. Plus, he's got seven victories and 17 top-fives to add to his Martinsville résumé

That he starts third on Sunday won't hurt, either.

"I saw a poll of the 10 Chase drivers done recently and it really surprised me how many of 'em were concerned about what impact the Martinsville race could have on their chances of winning the championship," Wallace said. "Man, that's certainly not the case with me and my team. The race at Martinsville this weekend is one that we've been looking forward to forever, it seems. The track has been so good to us through the years and we're looking for another big boost there this weekend."

Cause for concern
Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are going to hope for a reversal in their Martinsville fortunes. Biffle has raced there five times in a Cup car and Edwards has done so twice, but neither has a top-10 finish. Biffle has averaged 23.6 finish and Edwards' average is a lowly 31st.

Biffle and his No. 16 team acknowledged their deficiencies at the track earlier this season and decided to focus on a major improvement there. This weekend will reveal how well the team did.

"Martinsville has never been a very good track for me as a driver so last week we took two full days testing there," said Biffle, who trails Stewart and Johnson by just 11 points in the standings. "We had a really good test and I feel more confident going there this week than I ever have. We're taking a car that I really liked in the test and I have a good feel for it. I think it will be a good car for us at Martinsville and I look for us to have a solid run there. That's really all we need."

Edwards and Co. also tested at Martinsville, but lack the overflowing optimism of Biffle. Still, with a qualifying time good enough to start 18th, the No. 99 team is just happy it's high enough in the starting order not to fall down a lap too early in the race.

"Martinsville is a difficult track," Edwards's crew chief, Bob Osborne, said. "I would say it's one of the tracks we've struggled the most with this year. I feel like we haven't been fast enough there but I think we made some strides during our test last week. … This will be a tough track for us no doubt but I think we will only get better and hopefully we can continue our momentum from the last several weeks."

Don't forget
Kurt Busch doesn't have the best overall résumé at Martinsville, but he does have a victory there and a knack for winning at short tracks. He's won at Richmond International Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway. And it was just three years ago when he won at Martinsville in the fall.

"We're looking forward to this weekend at Martinsville because it's a track we ran well at earlier this year before we were wrecked by [Jeff Gordon], and we're bringing back the car we won with last month at Richmond, so we feel good about it."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.