While the fleet of Nextel Cup trucks and trailers loaded up for the trip to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a detour earlier this week to northern Kentucky. He was prospecting - looking for any kind of edge in upcoming races at intermediate-sized tracks.
Earnhardt had hit the skids lately, finishing 32nd, 42nd and 24th in the three races leading up to last week's run at Bristol. Desperate times have demanded somewhat extreme measures, like the foray to Kentucky Speedway.
"We weren't that good at intermediate tracks last year and we haven't really been that strong this year. That's why we're here testing," Earnhardt said.
"Hopefully, we can learn something. We're working on a lot of different things all across the board with our engineering department, trying to build a better race car for the rest of the season."
Earnhardt, who was third in the season-opening Daytona 500, made a move in the Nextel Cup points race by finishing fourth in last Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol. He jumped seven places in the standings and is 17th going into this weekend's Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the shortest track on the circuit at 0.526 miles.
Earnhardt hopes the homework he did this week will pay dividends at later stops this season, when he expects to be in the thick of the Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship over the final 10 races of the year.
"This track [Kentucky] has a similar configuration to California or Vegas," Earnhardt said. "You can learn a little bit about corners, what helps the cars turn and what gives them grip in the rear. I think we have to work on the bodies a little bit and get a little more grip. We have good down-force numbers, but the car isn't providing us with enough grip. It's all numbers and figures, but you have to get out on the race track to see what does what, what feels this way and what feels that way to improve the car."
HOT HARVICK: Kevin Harvick is on fire, and he wants to keep fanning the flames. As a driver, Harvick won both the Nextel Cup race and the Busch Series race last weekend at Bristol. As a team owner through his Kevin Harvick Inc., the Bakersfield, Calif., native has won in the Busch Series with Tony Stewart driving his entry, and in the Craftsman Truck Series with Ron Hornady behind the wheel.
THE VIRGINIAN: Elliott Sadler wheels his No. 38 M&M's Taurus into Martinsville Speedway in his native Virginia this weekend, and he expects all the comforts of home.
"We definitely are more prepared for this Martinsville race than we've been in a long time," Sadler said. "We actually feel really good about going to Martinsville, so that's good mentally for the driver and the crew chief, I think. We'll see what happens. I like the place. It's at home for me. There's always a lot of pressure on us to run good there and I've always got so much support from all of our Virginia fans, but I'm really anxious to see where we stack up. Martinsville is gonna be a tell-tale weekend for us."
LOVE/HATE: Mark Martin doesn't sugar-coat his feelings about Martinsville Speedway, where he'll race this weekend in the Advance Auto Parts 500.
"Martinsville is a place that I've always hated with a passion," Martin said. "But we've won two or three times there. I've always loved Pocono, but I've never won there, so what does that tell you? Martinsville has always been a thorn in my side as far as short tracks go. The people have always told me how well I run there, but it sure never feels that way.
"It can be physically demanding. It's been a real challenge for me, because it really just doesn't fit my driving style."
WALTRIP'S LAST TRIP: Darrell Waltrip is making his final race appearance in tomorrow's Kroger 250 Craftsman Truck Series race, but don't schedule him for a tee time just yet.
"I'm not going to race competitively again," Waltrip said. "But going out and testing - I still want to do that. It's not that I'm not ever going to get in a car or truck again. I'll probably hop in there every now and then just for fun."
Waltrip is a team owner in the Craftsman Series.
- Matt Markey