Qualifying for the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300 got a lot more interesting for spectators this year.
This year the qualifying for the premiere Late Model race will take place in the form of four heat races. Eight drivers from each heat race will qualify for the race. Ten more drivers will qualify in a 50-lap last-chance race following the heat races.
It’s a different format, and for most of the 86 drivers who tested Martinsville Speedway on Wednesday in a practice session for the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300, the new format brings some new talking points.
“There are definitely pros and there are definitely cons,” said driver Lee Pulliam, who was in Martinsville on Wednesday for a practice session. “As a race fan, I would like it a lot better. As a driver, I’m fine with it. But there was a lot of prestige being in the top 22. You went home on Saturday night, and you were 22 of the best Late Models in the nation and that felt good. You slept good that night.
“But it’s the same for all of us. You have to figure out a way to conquer it. I think it’s going to make for some exciting races for the fans. Sometimes you need change to kind of reenergize stuff.”
Pulliam, a Semora, N.C. native, won the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300 last year after a controversial collision on the final lap with Matt McCall. Pulliam, running the No. 1 car, is back again after finishing as the Wheelen All-American national champion despite a four-month suspension to start the year after getting a scuffle with Phillip Morris at the end of the 2011 season.
The format cut out an extra day of preparation. In the past, teams loaded Thursday, practiced and went through inspection on Friday, then qualified on Saturday.
But some drivers are welcoming the change.
Kevin Parker, a local driver out of Collinsville, thinks the new qualifying system could help his chances at qualifying. Despite a few sponsors who have been with him and his father before him for years, Parker’s team is largely self-funded.
“For a team like me, it really helps,” Parker said. “What that does, going back, you know they cut that whole day out, and that gives all the big cup teams and all the well-funded teams a day short where they can’t throw everything at the car.
“When we unload, we pretty much know what we’ve got. It’s really an advantage for a team like us, because everybody is on a, pretty much, even playing field. When you came over here in the past, you know that top 22, unless I made a flawless lap, it was unlikely I was going to be in the top 22.”
Now teams will load into the infield late Friday, go through practice and inspection on Saturday, then qualify and race Sunday.
“With this new format, I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Parker said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
The Big One
The TUMS Fast Relief 500 is certainly an important race in the Chase in late October, but when it comes to Late Model racing, there’s nothing bigger than Martinsville Speedway.
Well, maybe not length-wise, but in terms of importance, Martinsville is the one.
“It’s always exciting to be back here at Martinsville, the coolest place in the world for Late Model,” driver Dennis Setzer said. “This is the Daytona of Late Model stocks. Always will be. Always has been.”
Setzer has been around NASCAR for years, driving on all three of NASCAR’s top series. A 52-year-old Newton, N.C., native, Setzer was one of the first drivers from the Hickory, N.C., area to find success at Martinsville. He’s won the Late Model race at the Speedway, most recently in 2007.
Setzer has found the most success on the Camping World Trucks series, where his last win was at Martinsville in 2008.
“It’s Martinsville,” Pulliam said. “It’s the coolest place to win, and it’s the funnest place we run.”
Three local drivers will attempt to qualify for Martinsville Speedway this year — Martinsville’s Matt Bowling and Tony Keen and Collinsville’s Parker.
Bowling became the youngest racer to ever qualify for the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 300 two years ago at the age of 16.
Last year, Bowling qualified and started 18th but got in an accident while running 11th that pushed him back to a 25th.
Parker and Keen have never qualified at Martinsville, but they are both hopeful this may be the year.
“I’ve never been involved a lot with the NASCAR stuff, I love the Late Model stuff,” Keen said. “I like the competitiveness of it. There are so many people on equal ground. I mean, you do have people who have bigger check books and small check books, but once you put four new tires on, they’re pretty much on equal ground.”
Keen is running with Sellers Racing this year out of Danville. Parker’s team is largely self-funded. He missed out on qualifying last year by one car, and to do it at Martinsville this year would mean a lot to him.
“Going back four years ago, I remember the first time I came down the front stretch I forgot where I was at and almost wadded it up in turn one. I was just taken back by where I was. All my heroes run here. Richie Evans was my hero. To be on the same racetrack with them and all the big guys in the Winston Cup, it’s just breathtaking for a little small team like me out of Collinsville.”