Greek mythology introduced the hero Achilles as the central character and legendary warrior in the fabled Trojan War. It was foretold that the great Greek warrior would die in battle so, in an effort to prevent his death, Achilles’ mother took him to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer the power of invincibility. Achilles was held by the heel and dipped into the magical water. While he survived many great battles, a fatal shot to the aforementioned heel befell the mighty Achilles. “Achilles heel” has since become a metaphor for vulnerability.
Vulnerability is something every athlete battles and works hard to overcome. It isn’t publicly discussed, but it is there in the background, lingering like a shadow that silently follows one around.
NASCAR drivers battle their own vulnerabilities on a weekly basis and each has tracks at which the phrase “Achilles heel” aptly describes his relationship with the pavement, the layout, or any of a number of other unique features. Kurt Busch has found success on the majority of tracks visited by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He has visited victory lane at least once at all but nine tracks. This weekend’s stop at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway is no exception as Busch cruised to victory in only his fourth career start in Sprint Cup action at the .526-mile track, scoring the win on Oct. 20, 2002. The 2004 Sprint Cup champion has a pole award to go along with his win, having earned the top starting spot during the track’s fall race in 2006. In addition to the win and pole, Busch has made the most of each of his 23 races at Martinsville by running at the end of each event but one, which was the result of an engine failure during the fall race of 2001. He has completed 11,209 of the 11,519 laps run during that 23-race span for a lap completion rate of 97.3 percent.
While he has experienced success at Martinsville, Busch would still label the Virginia track as his own personal Achilles heel. As the series travels to southern Virginia for Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500, Busch will arrive with great buoyancy courtesy of his No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services racing team.
James Finch-owned Phoenix Racing operates out of Spartanburg, S.C., but receives valuable support from powerhouse organization Hendrick Motorsports. Aside from running Hendrick engines, Phoenix Racing also receives support with Hendrick’s chassis program. When it comes to Martinsville, Hendrick Motorsports has not only experienced success, it has experienced success often. A Hendrick Motorsports driver has won 10 of the last 18 Sprint Cup races run at Martinsville. Of the eight races in which other drivers have won, a Hendrick driver finished in the runner-up spot on six of those eight occasions. Taking it a step further, the car fielded by Phoenix Racing for this weekend’s race belonged to the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team prior to the 2011 season.
This week’s race at Martinsville will be the sixth of the 2012 season. Phoenix Racing hopes it’s the first in which they overcome a personal Achilles heel by relying on Busch’s experience and a trusted affiliation with an accomplished organization.
KURT BUSCH, Driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing:
What are your thoughts on racing at Martinsville?
“It’s not my favorite track. I’ll admit I have struggled there in years past. Heck, I won there in 2002 but I think I must have been wearing a blindfold for the whole race, or something. It’s just real funny with that place because, if you hit it exactly right, your car drives nice and smooth and it’s as if you’ve never even run 500 laps. Then, on the other hand, if your car isn’t handling right, it will wear you out. You’re on the brakes hard, trying to feather the throttle and just trying to make it through. So I’m hoping this time around, with Finch’s car and Phoenix Racing having a little affiliation with Hendrick (Motorsports), that this will give me new optimism for the track. I mean, I just flat-out struggle there so, hopefully, we can go there with the best car we can, the Hendrick affiliation and, hopefully, find the right setup.”
How much more important is track position at a place like Martinsville?
“Track position is everything, everywhere but, at Martinsville, it is just so easy to lose it. It doesn’t take much to find yourself going backward, whether it’s a situation with someone bumping you out of the way or you get too high on the track and up in the marbles. Then, deal with what that does to the tires and, boom, next thing you know, you may have had a 10th-place car and now you are 18th. It’s a goal all day to work your way forward and then just to have smooth pit stops to carry you through those mid-points of the race. Then, at the end, when everything is on the line, you have to be aggressive and you can’t be afraid to use the fenders on people to get that solid finish.”
How much does pit strategy become a factor at Martinsville?
“That is definitely something that comes into play – you may gamble early to pick up some positions on the track, especially if you’ve had trouble in qualifying. It’s just one of those things, though, where you always hope you’re on the right one (strategy) and, if you get caught on the wrong one, then you’re kicking yourself the whole time.”
What is the toughest part about racing at Martinsville?
“To me, the toughest part of Martinsville is that you just never have a moment to breathe. You have to be on your game non-stop for 500 laps because somebody’s on you or you are on top of somebody the whole time and there is just no room for error.”
There’s a week off after the race at Martinsville. How do you feel about the start of the season?
“We’ve had our ups and downs to start the season. There have been tough days, but the effort has been incredible. I think the hardest thing is there are only seven days in a week with 24 hours in a day, so we just need time to get caught up. A lot of things have happened that have been beyond our control. The guys are working hard and I think it’s safe to say everyone is looking forward to the weekend off. I said at the beginning of the season that the way in which we view success may be a little different than in the past and we would have small victories along the way. We’ve already had a few of those with the races in Phoenix, where we had a 15th-place finish, and then we finish ninth in California. So, every time we’ve finished, we’ve basically been a top-15 car. I think part of the start of this season has been overcoming the learning curve of working with a new team and understanding the things this team knows about its cars that I may not know and then the things I know that maybe the team doesn’t know.”