Drivers looking to avoid scrapes

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) – Jeff Gordon seems amused by the attention he’s gotten as the good guy gone bad, his squeaky clean image tarnished by a post-race shove of an apologetic Matt Kenseth at Bristol last weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others seem entertained too, not only by Gordon’s promise to prove more often that he’s human, but by conjecture that 500 laps of payback are coming today, when the premier series races at tight, tricky and often testy Martinsville Speedway.

“I think if there weren’t so many questions on it, you might get some more reactions on the track. You might see some more paybacks,” pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson said Saturday. “With all the attention drawn to it, no one’s going to make a mistake.

“I guess the fans are being shorted in an ironic way.”

That’s rarely how it ends up at Martinsville, though, where a narrow and sharply bending pit road is always blamed for some scrapes, and more cars typically finish their day strapped to the back of a tow truck than without a blemish to be seen.

Throw in the festering grudges from all the beating and banging a week ago, and fans will show up Sunday wondering if Kenseth should be on the lookout for Gordon, who dropped from third to 21st on the last lap at Bristol after a nudge from Kenseth, and if Kurt Busch should beware of Kenseth after nudging him aside with four laps remaining.

Drivers typically practice the policy of doing to others only what has been done to them, but Johnson said they also know the wrong agenda can be extremely costly.

“The majority of the drivers, they’re professionals and they know what they need to do,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to block that out, go forward.

“We all need to collect points and get going from here.”

Gordon has echoed the same viewpoint this weekend, noting that he called Martin Truex Jr. this week to apologize for their feud at Bristol, and talked with Kenseth following the incident that drew Gordon a $10,000 fine and probation through Aug. 30.

He also knows that more contact is inevitable, however, especially when 43 race cars are together on a narrow track and all fighting for every point they can get.

“We’re all trying to win races and we’re all trying to occupy the same amount of real estate,” the four-time champion said. “As competitive as it is these days, it’s just so hard to get those opportunities to keep those positions and win races.

“I would expect we’re going to see more and more of it.”

Earnhardt thinks so, too, and is looking forward to watching it unfold.

“I think it is awesome. I think it is good for our sport,” he said. “It is really entertaining for the fans and it is really entertaining for the other drivers.”

It’s also involving more and more veterans, Dale Jarrett said, dispelling a long-held view that it is typically the less-experienced drivers causing the trouble.

“There’s no doubt that it’s a totally different type of racing now,” Jarrett said. “It’s a little more in-your-face and stand your ground. You have to do that. “That’s just what this has evolved into and you’re going to see a lot of people react like that when they feel like they did nothing wrong.”

Because speed is limited in tight quarters on the .526-mile oval, Earnhardt said accidents typically don’t send cars to the garage with serious damage. That helps make it all less threatening, but several drivers still focus on avoiding contact.

Among those hoping to steer clear of feuds on Sunday will be Tony Raines, who is making his debut in a car owned by Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. Terry Labonte drove the car in the first five races, and Raines wants to make a positive impression.

“If you give up a lot early, it is really the last 50 laps where you can gain a lot of spots if your car is in one piece,” Raines said. “There are going to be incidents throughout the race, and you just have to stay focused on saving your equipment.”

At Martinsville, that’s often more easily said than done.

AP-ES-04-01-06 1604EST

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