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NASCAR's hottest short track? Martinsville or Bristol?

  Brian Vickers (L), getting a new lease on his career by Michael Waltrip (R) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   The toughest ticket in NASCAR?
   Oughta be right here, the way these guys were tearing it up last fall.
   Cue Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth. They were some of the headliners in that slam-bang afternoon at Martinsville Speedway.
   But both insist that incident is now behind them.

   Vickers is on a career comeback trail this season, with an eight-race gig for Michael Waltrip, filling in where Mark Martin wants time off. Waltrip Friday added the June Sonoma and August Watkins Glen road course races to Vickers' calendar, partly in response to Vickers' brilliant performance at Bristol two weeks ago, in his first stint of the season.
   "In the sport we live in, you need validation every week," Vickers says. "You can fade away quickly. 
    "I've definitely made mistakes over the last 10 years in my NASCAR career; but I've had some really good moments that I've been very proud of -- and Bristol was one of them.
    "When you only have eight shots at it, you better make them count."

   Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski led Friday's three hours of practice for Sunday's Goody's 500, all on long runs on race setup. Pole qualifying is set for 11:40 a.m. ET, prior to the 250-lap Truck race (1:30 p.m.) Cup drivers will get no further practice.


Martinsville's Clay Campbell: now running the track with 'the hottest ticket in NASCAR.' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Any lingering issues from last fall's action here? Anything to worry about in Sunday's Goody's 500 here?
    "No, absolutely not whatsoever," Vickers says. 
    "Matt wrecked me…and I'm sure he regrets it…and I wrecked him back. I wish it hadn't happened, but that's the end of it."
    Kenseth says he agrees.
    "Certainly from my standpoint, that's all in the past," Kenseth says. "You've got to move forward. 
    "If you're sitting there worrying about that stuff, thinking about it, you're certainly not giving your best effort.
    "So I think that's all water under the bridge.
     "I'm sure he's excited to be back in the car; they had a great run at Bristol.
    "A lot of people - including both of us -- are probably looking forward to racing Sunday and getting last year out of everybody's
minds…and hopefully ours too."


Things got dicey at Martinsville last fall (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Vickers concedes that race wasn't his finest day at the track: "Obviously I didn't make the best decisions of my career.
    "But ultimately Matt wrecked me going into three, and I wrecked him back. 
     "It's happened a lot in the sport of NASCAR. I think that's actually what the whole change at Bristol is about: I guess everybody wants to see more of that. 
     "I'm not trying to defend my actions; I'm just saying when you really boil it down that's what it was. Matt wrecked me, and I wrecked him back, and it spiraled. 
     "For me it was a lesson learned.  My goal this year is for that to go away, for that to becoming a non-issue.
    "That's what Bristol was for me. And I can't thank Michael enough for that opportunity. 
     "My goal this weekend is to make it disappear again, so that when we're back here in the next race we're talking a great run at Martinsville…and everybody completely forgets about the other one."


Fastest in Martinsville practice. But he hasn't won since September, and he's mired 25th in the standings, with an eighth at Phoenix his best finish of a so-far luckless season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


     There is another side to the whole issue for Vickers too. The team he'd run for the last five years just closed up shop at the end of 2011, and he's trying to restart his career. That also comes in the wake of the 2010 medical issues that sidelined him.
     Did Vickers ever worry that potential car owners might consider him damaged goods?
    "Yeah," Vickers says. "That conversation, I have had with myself many times over the last couple of years….when I found out Red Bull was shutting down…through the off-season talking to other teams…when I was laying in hospital bed two years ago. 
     "I've tried to focus on the part I can control and do the best I can.
     "When the right one showed up, I knew it instantly -- and that's this opportunity."

    Kenseth too is looking for an opportunity, of a somewhat different sort. Yes, he kicked butt at Daytona, and he ran strong at Bristol.
   But elsewhere he's been so-so, and Kenseth surprisingly wasn't on his game at California last weekend.
   Plus Martinsville Speedway hasn't been a Ford track lately. In fact Ford's last win here was 10 years ago, with Kurt Busch.
   Can Kenseth make something happen here?
   Or will this Sunday's 500 be another Chevy or Toyota show? Denny Hamlin versus Jimmie Johnson is probably the best betting line…though Tony Stewart's stirring outside pass on Johnson to victory last fall certainly hasn't faded from memory.


   Darlington Raceway: Goodyear says if it can make great tires for the 200 mph corner speeds on Darlington's new asphalt, coming up with good tires for a Bristol repave should be a snap (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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