Lesson learned, Harvick returns to Martinsville

Friday, April 11th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MARTINSVILLE, Virginia (AP) _ Kevin Harvick will have a better outcome at Martinsville Speedway than a year ago _ even if he finishes last Sunday.

He was banned last April from the Winston Cup race by NASCAR for rough driving a day earlier in the truck series. It was an unprecedented move by the sanctioning body, one that contributed to Harvick's 21st-place finish in the standings and enhanced his reputation as a hot head.

``I had a barbecue at my shop, watched the race with my friends and learned my lesson,'' Harvick said. ``I obviously wanted to be racing, but I put myself in that spot and that's the way it works.

``Actually, it was kind of relaxing.''

This weekend, Harvick will drive in both races, hoping to continue an early season run that has him ninth in the Cup standings after a second-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway. Perhaps more important: He's staying out of trouble.

The 27-year-old Californian spent virtually all of last season on probation. His skirmish with Coy Gibbs during the truck race at Martinsville was the low point. Harvick vowed over his car radio to spin out Gibbs _ which he did.

Harvick won't do it again, but he has no plan to drive sheepishly in the Virginia 500, one of two races each year on the shortest Winston Cup track _ where bumping and banging are commonplace.

``I can go back and race harder than I did last time there,'' he said. ``I'm not in trouble, and I know what I need to do. I know how to handle situations better.''

Harvick is not the only driver who has trouble with the tight turns and long straightaways at Martinsville.

The race begins with everyone knowing there will be plenty of beating, banging and flaring tempers. Dealing with it all becomes a key to success.

``You learn how to protect the car,'' said series champion Tony Stewart, who once recommended turning Martinsville into a bass pond, but has one victory and five top-10 finishes in his last six races here. ``You learn how to not beat it up.

``You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you get a lot more patience.''

The problem, Kyle Petty said, is everyone is fighting for the same thing.

``It's more than two cars trying to get to the same spot,'' Petty said. ``It's 43 cars trying to get to the same place _ the checkered flag _ before the rest of them do.''

The last 11 Winston Cup races at Martinsville have produced 11 different winners. Bobby Labonte won this event last spring, and Kurt Busch was the winner in the fall.

Virtually every car ends up with black tire marks on its sides at Martinsville, and drivers often resort to using their banged-up vehicles to exact revenge.

``What you have to do is overcome a lot of that,'' Petty said. ``Just like in any sport, being a little mad can help you out. Being a lot mad is when you run into problems.''