Dale Jarrett could be excused if he shudders when he drives his personal car into Martinsville Speedway.
The nearly-flat, .526-mile oval in the hills of southern Virginia has not been a very welcoming place for the second-generation NASCAR driving star.
Since he ran his first race here in 1984, Jarrett has managed seven top-10 finishes in 26 starts, including two thirds. One of those third-place finishes came in the spring of 1998.
Since then, Jarrett has finished 42nd and eighth at Martinsville, typical of his mixed results here over the years.
"We're still not as good at this track as we'd like to be," said Jarrett, who holds a 257-point lead over Mark Martin in the season standings heading into Sunday's NAPA AutoCare 500.
Jarrett built most of his lead with 20 top-10 finishes including 18 top-fives and all four of his wins in the first 22 races of 1999.
Since then, he has been inconsistent, with two thirds and finishes of 38th, 16th and 18th in his last five races.
It hasn't been disastrous, but a championship that was practically conceded to Jarrett when he held a 314-point lead after the Michigan Speedway race Aug. 22, has at least been put in question with seven races remaining.
Martinsville, with its reputation for fender-rubbing, brake-wearing competition, could be a key hurdle for Jarrett in the title chase.
It's a place where Jarrett, who will start 14th in the 43-car field, isn't confident of a good result.
"We're still not to the point where we feel we can challenge those guys up front on the long runs, and that's usually our strong point," Jarrett said Saturday.
"This is a difficult track, but I think it's the challenge of Martinsville that makes me want to come here. There's only a few racetracks we haven't figured out and that makes me want to come here and get it right."
Martin, who won here in the spring of 1992 and has finished third and fifth in his last two Martinsville races, will start sixth Sunday. Going into the 500-lap race, he is only seven points ahead of third-place Bobby Labonte and 27 in front of rookie Tony Stewart.
"Martinsville has never been a great track for me," Martin said. "I've never run well at flat tracks, especially when they are this small. It they started 10 less cars, it would make a huge difference."
"But with 43 cars, if you start in back, you're nearly a lap down already. If you start up front, you're in traffic with a few laps. Given those choices, I'll take the spot up front."
Labonte, who crashed his primary car in Friday's practice, will start his backup 25th, while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Stewart, will start a season-worst 37th.
"I hate we lost a car," Labonte said. "It puts a lot of work on all the guys. I flat lost it on sticker (new) tires. I've been coming here long enough that I should know better."
B>"That put us in a little hole for Sunday."
Stewart, who won the first of his two Winston Cup poles here in April and finished 20th in the race, said, "We just haven't hit on the right set-up. This place has been tough on me this year."
Pole-winner Joe Nemechek and Ted Musgrave will start from the front row, just ahead of Geoffrey Bodine, Kyle Petty, Jeff Gordon and Martin. Defending champion Ricky Rudd will start eighth, with spring winner John Andretti ninth.
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