On my last visit to Martinsville Speedway, on Oct. 21, 2007, it was to bear witness to the Chase duel between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who would both be gunning for Victory Lane at a track where they had combined to win seven of the last nine races. And while the two drivers did indeed engage in a spirited battle for victory (Johnson's win was the first of four straight for him in the Chase), what I've always remembered about that day was Greg Biffle. After finishing seventh, his first top-10 showing at the storied track, the driver was clearly excited about his run, gushing about how thrilling it was to duel for the lead with the two drivers who own Martinsville.
"That was a win!" shouted Biffle, who'd married longtime girlfriend Nicole Lunders just a few days earlier. "If I would have known I was going to run this good, I would have gotten married about five years ago. That'll teach me ... I might have been working on my second or third championship by now."
It was an enlightening moment. A snapshot of pure joy in a sport where even drivers near the bottom of the standings come off as overly polished and even-keeled with the media. But Biffle had reason to be effusive. Things are looking up for him these days after two years of less than stellar results. He currently sits in second place in the '08 points standings, the same position he held at the end of the '05 season, when it looked like he would be a Chase contender for years to come. But plagued by inconsistency -- due no doubt in part to sponsorship troubles in '07, as well as a crew-chief shuffle -- he missed Cup racing's version of the playoffs both seasons. Now, if he can find the consistency that has so far eluded him, he seems poised to end that streak.
And I don't think it would be out of the question for him to do well again this weekend at Martinsville. His fourth-place showing at Bristol two weeks ago would seem to indicate that he's again capable of a top-10 run (though to be fair, he's been much better over the course of his career at Bristol than at Martinsville).
Even more important, though, is the fact that Biffle is in his contract year -- is deal with Roush Fenway Racing is up at the end of the season. He's got something to prove, not only to everybody who thought he would never make the Chase again, but also to team owner Jack Roush. He's said that he feels there's a "90 percent" chance he will re-sign, but there's little doubt that the better he does on the track, the more money he's likely to make off of it.
How to Drive ...
Kasey Kahne talks about racing this weekend at Martinsville:
"We had a good run at Bristol so I'm looking forward to Martinsville. I haven't had the best luck racing there in the past, but Kenny Francis has given me very competitive race cars this year and I'm looking forward to leaving Martinsville with a solid finish. Martinsville is definitely a challenging race -- 500 laps in heavy traffic from start to finish. Patience is essential, but you still have to be aggressive to stay up front. It's typical short-track racing."
11: Combined victories at Martinsville for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
8: Wins in the last 10 Martinsville races for Gordon and Johnson.
62: Percent of laps led by Gordon and Johnson in the last three Martinsville races, a total of 930.
September 25, 1949: Red Byron wins at Martinsville, his second victory of the season, effectively sealing the first Strictly Stock (now the Sprint Cup Series) title in NASCAR history. In six starts that season, Byron earned $5,800.