Martinsville Speedway is one of the more demanding tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. Accordingly, rarely do drivers do well the first time they take to the half-mile oval.
In his first Martinsville start series, points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished four laps down in 26th and, according to him, was so bad he hit everything, including an ambulance. Jimmie Johnson would eventually go on to win seven races at the legendary bullring, but in his initial outing he finished 35th due to a vibration.
This is the battle Danica Patrick faces this weekend as the rookie driver takes to the track that resembles a giant paperclip.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Patrick said Friday at Martinsville. “Am I going to go out there and be just fine or am I going to go out there and be a total disaster? It might feel like those times when I drove a Nationwide car for the first time at tracks that I hadn’t been to and all I do is look in my mirror the whole time for what’s going on.”
Like any driver -- rookie or veteran -- Patrick’s goal for Sunday is to avoid trouble and complete as many laps as possible.
But that’s far easier said than done at Martinsville, where trouble lurks on every short straightaway and through its two hairpin corners. And with tensions high in the garage among various drivers, and with the short track offering the perfect place to extract revenge, Sunday is going to be a difficult day for Patrick, to say the least.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be really challenging and probably a little overwhelming right at first with all the other cars out there up to speed so quickly,” Patrick said.
In an effort to learn the nuances of the tricky half-mile, Patrick will lean on her teammate/car owner, Tony Stewart, who has three Martinsville victories, along with her other Stewart-Haas Racing stablemate, Ryan Newman, who won this race a year ago.
However, all the advice in the garage doesn’t make up for the one big thing Patrick is lacking: experience.
“Being a rookie and kind of getting shown the ropes, I don’t know how that’s going to go,” Patrick said. “You just have to stand your ground. Nothing works better than driving away from people.
“We’re going to be working toward a car that will do what I want it to do and be comfortable. We’ll just see how it shakes out.”