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Questions abound as Martinsville waits

Posted: Saturday October 23, 2004 5:31PM; Updated: Saturday October 23, 2004 5:31PM
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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) -- Rusty Wallace is the leader among active drivers at Martinsville Speedway with seven career victories, and even he's unsure how the track's new surface will respond to racing on Sunday.

The surface has been commended by drivers this week for being smooth and fast, but questions remain about whether it will feature two grooves for racing when the Subway 500 in the Nextel Cup Series is run.

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"I think there are a lot of unknowns right now," Wallace said.

The new surface, with concrete in the corners and asphalt in the straightaways, was put down this summer, after part of the concrete came loose in the spring Nextel Cup race, possibly costing Jeff Gordon a victory.

New tracks typically present problems immediately after they are installed, largely because they haven't been raced on, allowing small bits of rubber that comes off tires to fill nooks and crannies in the surface, easing its grip on tires and allowing for more consistent racing.

Among the concerns about Martinsville: Are the hunks of rubber coming off tires and being deposited along the outside walls creating a treacherous zone where cars should not venture? How feasible will passing be as the race goes on?

Many drivers were most interested to see how the track responded during a practice Saturday, and Jeff Green, for one, emerged still pessimistic.

"Everybody is running about the same speed and if you get off the bottom, it's seems like there's so much stuff on the outside it takes a lap to get your tires cleaned off," the Petty Enterprises driver said.

"It's going to be tough to pass, I think."

Changes, and questions, are among the last things Gordon wanted to have to deal with at a track where he has dominated in recent years, winning three poles and two races in the series' last three visits.

Gordon, a four-time champion, is third in points, 74 behind Kurt Busch and 50 behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. halfway through NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

"We've got a new challenge on our hands," said Gordon, who had five victories on the old surface and will start 15th on the new one. "I don't think you can really predict who's going to be good and who's not."

There are those he has to assume will be good. In the first five playoff races, Busch and Earnhardt haven't finished outside the top five.

"They're running good everywhere," Gordon said Saturday. "It's our job to go out there and make something happen. This is a place that I think we can make something happen. I'm excited about that.

"When we leave here, we've got to make something happen in Atlanta. We've got to make something happen in Phoenix. We've got to make something happen everywhere. That's just the way this chase is with the new system."

Plus, it's not just the 10 cars in the playoff that are racing. The team that finishes 11th in the points race gets a bonus, and the others want to win, too.

"When you're out there running right behind somebody or you got somebody in the mirror, you're not thinking about where they are in the points system," Earnhardt said. "I think too much has been made of that -- the guys that are in the chase and not in the chase and how they race and how we race. ... Everybody is out there racing as hard as they can."

Earnhardt trails Busch by just 24 points, and the leader knows the championship is still up for grabs.

"I believe a playoff system is an elimination-type series where you have one bad game and that puts you behind, but you can come back from that," Busch said. "You could be down 3-0 and make it back."

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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