Martinsville is one of those tracks where you’ve made a lot of starts, dating all the way back to 1998 when you raced there in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Spears Manufacturing. The track is celebrating its 75th anniversary and you’ve been racing there for 24 of those years. Does the history of Martinsville resonate with you?
“Martinsville has a deep history in our sport. It’s a place that’s just a part of NASCAR racing and I think you have to respect that. But I definitely would tell you it’s not a racetrack that I would say, ‘This is where I want to go.’ It’s just not been a place where I’ve had streaks of success.”
You last raced at Martinsville nearly seven months ago, and you tested at Martinsville back in August. What did you glean from that test and how did it compare to what you felt when you raced at the track in early April?
“After the test, I was like, ‘Man, we should’ve run this thing way earlier in the year when it’s hot.’ There was so much rubber on the racetrack, and we had tire falloff, and the group was spread out. Two-and-a-half, three lanes were caked up with rubber, and it just seemed a lot more racey when it was hot and we were able to lay rubber down. We didn’t lay any rubber down during the first race. I know we had some unique circumstances with rain and darkness and it was cold. I just hope it lays rubber down again like it did at the test. We know there’s a lot of shifting at Martinsville, and track position is going to be important.”
Martinsville is the night before Halloween and it’s why you’re driving a BOOsch Light Ford Mustang. What scares you about Martinsville?
“What scares me about Martinsville is if it races like it did the first time and it becomes increasingly difficult to pass. When we went there the first time, it didn’t lay any rubber, we shifted a ton, and it was just extremely difficult to pass. That lessens your opportunity to have a good-handling car and do the things that you need to do to have the best car to win the race. When that happens, people start taking chances, whether it be no tires, left-side tires, and then the restarts become incredibly mixed up and rough, and there are things you can get caught up in. If it goes like the test did and there’s (tire) falloff and there’s rubber on the racetrack, it’ll be a different style of race. Still have a little bit of question as to what Martinsville will actually look like, but either way, whether it’s a hard race to pass at or a race that has a lot of falloff and things are going to happen naturally, they’re both hard to navigate.”
Even with the uncertainty of how the racing will be when you return to Martinsville this weekend, the track has always made drivers feel a bit apprehensive because of its tight confines and close racing. How do you handle racing at Martinsville?
“It’s just a challenging racetrack because the corners are so tight and the cars were so difficult to race there the first time around. We went to Richmond, which was always difficult to race the first time around, and the second time was a drastically different race. I think Martinsville can just eat you up pretty quickly with somebody else’s mistake, or you can get behind pretty quickly and you just have to be able to be aggressive without getting your stuff torn up. If something’s not right, it’ll put you behind in a hurry.”
This NextGen car seems to be a little more forgiving than the previous-generation car when it comes to beating and banging. Those composite body panels don’t cut tires like the sheet metal of past cars used to. Does that give drivers a green light to lean on one another perhaps a bit more than they used to?
“You still have to be careful. Front-to-rear is fine with the foam and everything in the back of the car, but you still have to take care of the racecar. You still have a little more leeway than what you used to. You just don’t want to hit the wheels really hard because those parts will break.”
What’s OK and what isn’t when it comes to car-to-car contact at a short track?
“You can pretty much tell if it’s on purpose or not on purpose. You just have to be mentally prepared to know that there is going to be contact as you go through that race. You just have to try and stay as calm as possible. But, usually, if it’s the same guy that keeps having contact, then you know you have to do something different.”
Is there a driver code when it comes to competing on the racetrack?
“Well, the driver code is not what it used to be when I first started – when you would run into the back of somebody on a restart and lift their tires up off the ground because the nose was only 8, 9, 10 inches off the ground. It was much different then because there was a race etiquette that Ken Schrader and Bobby Hamilton and Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin made sure that you understood. Usually, it came in ways of not being able to get your lap back when the caution came out. They would race you back to the yellow (flag) if you weren’t doing things appropriately on the racetrack. You also have to remember that the consequences were much different without the SAFER Barriers and the things that had happened at that particular point of time. You’re talking about hurting guys in a pretty serious way. The cars were less durable than what they are now, so a lot of times when you had stuff happen and you roughed people up and you were being rambunctious and it ended their day, it was looked upon as careless behavior and the car wasn’t able to handle it. Today, I really see it at the go-kart tracks. The things you currently see on the racetrack are exactly how all of them are taught to race. They’re taught to block, they’re taught to race in the rain, they’re taught to run into you and they’re taught to gouge on the restarts, and that’s just the way it is. It’s just a different upbringing as far as how you teach them to race compared to how I was taught to race, and there are a lot more situations where everybody has the resources and cars to get to the racetrack than putting your car together on a week-to-week basis where if you didn’t finish, you didn’t get to go for a few weeks. It’s a much different era of racing than what it used to be.”