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For Conor Murphy, taking a road trip to Martinsville Speedway last weekend with four of his friends from the University of Virginia business school was a last chance for them all to be together.
In a couple of weeks they all graduate and head their separate ways. "We were close enough to come here," he said Sunday morning as the friends sat around the warmth of a fire. "It was one of those opportunities," he added, that just couldn't be passed up.
And so Saturday they left Charlottesville arriving at the Speedway that evening. They slept in their vehicles and woke up Sunday morning to weather cooler ? and potentially wetter ? than they had anticipated.
They lit the fire to stay warm ? hoping the rain would hold off ? and shared this one final time together.
Surprisingly, the rain stayed away.
That certainly didn't appear to be what would happen as those in Bedford and around the state set sail Sunday for Martinsville for the Goody's Cool Orange 500. Every weather report, and every weather organization, was calling for rain all day in Martinsville on race day. In Bedford it rained, and sleeted, much of Saturday night. Sunday morning brought more of the same.
But in Martinsville the rain held off, and continued to do so throughout the day until the last few laps of the race. By the time any significant precipitation had fallen, Denny Hamlin had already earned himself his first grandfather clock as Martinsville Speedway's newest champion.
For Murphy, his friends and thousands of others who braved the cold and the damp, the track once again provided a typical Martinsville fight-to-the-finish event. And so much more.
Race day is more than sitting in the stands and watching 43 cars turn left for 500 laps. It's an experience for all involved.
Take Robbie Powell for example.
Powell is one of the hundreds of race-team employees who work at the track on any-given Sunday. Powell was on site Sunday as part of the Hendrick Motorsports Team, working for the No. 5 team of Casey Mears. During the week, the Springboro, Ohio, native works at the teams' shops in Charlotte, N.C. But on Sundays, he travels to the tracks to help out.
On Sunday morning he left the shop at 5:15 a.m., arriving at Martinsville two hours later. His initial duties included helping to set up the pit and get tires ready for teams' cars. During the race he would work as a back-up gas and catch-can man. Following the race, he helped pack up for the trip back to Charlotte.
For Powell, working for Hendrick Motorsports is the fulfillment of a life-long love of racing. Powell works in the shop for the Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. teams. Now 31, he's been with the company for nine years. He began there as part of an internship program, following graduation from a community college in Concord, N.C.
Having raced three-wheelers and go-karts since he was 6 years old, he didn't want to do anything else.
"I love it," he said of his job. "I like going to work every day."
By 8:30 or 9 p.m. Sunday, Powell will be back in Charlotte, ready to begin preparing for next week's race at Texas.
John Driscoll of Springfield, Mass., also worked at the track all day. But not for one of the teams. He was there photographing the activities for Auto Racing News. Driscoll works full time as a photographer for a short-track in Connecticut. This was his fourth year covering the Martinsville race as a freelancer.
One of the closest to his home, Driscoll said Martinsville Speedway is like his "Mecca," the one chance he has a year to attend a NASCAR event. "It's nice just to get a chance to see a Cup race," he said.
Of course, race day at Martinsville is an event for the fans, too.
Many who arrive early fire up their grills and take time to visit the traveling NASCAR roadshow, a mini city of trailers representing most every team and NASCAR sponsor. From Sprint to Tums, Toyota to Chevrolet, fans can meander around the venues and purchase any memorabilia they could want.
And they could go to church.
Raceway Ministries is in its 16th year of setting up an outreach at Martinsville. A ministry of the Henry County Baptist Association, fans Sunday visited Raceway Ministries to get a free hot cup of refreshment and hear the gospel message. At 10:30 a.m. Barry McGee was in the tent, using humor and music to help present the message to those gathered, wearing their favorite driver's colors.
The ministry actually was on site as early as Friday, working in the campgrounds and other areas, according to Lee Howell. "We want to bring them to the Lord," he said of the ministry's ultimate goal for being at the race. Volunteers also help provide the raceway with other services.
Another gathering brought fans together not far away. The Speed Channel takes its race day crew on the road to each race and prior to the start of the event has its Race Day show, featuring Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer and John Roberts.
Fans gathered to cheer on their favorite drivers and maybe get caught on camera during the show. Just down the strip, fans entered the Toyota experience and were able to take pictures with cutouts of their favorite Toyota drivers or take a spin in a driving simulator.
Inside the track, meanwhile, crews were getting ready.
At noon, drivers, team owners and crew chiefs gathered for the weekly drivers meeting as basic rules for the race were given. A chapel service followed for the drivers, team members and their families. Billy Mauldin of Motor Racing Outreach led the service, speaking on guarding one's heart and taking time to read the Bible, allowing the Lord to reveal truth to them as they seek Him.
The Outreach provides services each week ? and is on-hand throughout the race weekend to provide spiritual guidance. At some tracks, MRO provides children's programs. On race day, MRO workers pray with drivers as they get ready to get in their cars.
Mauldin has been a chaplain with the ministry full-time for 10 years and worked five years as a volunteer prior to that. "It is just a different dynamic out here," he said of the services. "Most of them are coming in (to the service) because they believe and they want to take the time to practice their faith."
Driver introductions would soon follow. And then the national anthem. Not long after 2 p.m. the command is given: "Gentlemen, start your engines."
For the next 3 hours and 35 minutes the deafening roar of the 43 cars would thunder around the half-mile track. There would be eight different leaders, 20 different lead changes. The Hendrick teams of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson would dominate for much of the race, only to see Hamlin, who led the first lap, lead the last one as well. In fact, he would lead the final 73 laps of the race.
And on this cold and dreary Martinsville day, the Virginia native would win at what he called his Super Bowl of NASCAR racing tracks.
"To finally break through here means a lot," Hamlin said after the race. "When you get so close to winning so many races, it takes its toll on you."
The day was special for the Peters family as well. Dennis and Pam Peters, their five children and one friend left Hampton Saturday for their first trip to Martinsville Speedway. They stayed in South Boston Saturday night and arrived at the track early Sunday.
Dennis and Pam had provided the outing as a Christmas present for their children. They spent the morning eating burgers and brats, prepared on a small grill by Matt Peters, their son. They spent the race in the Richard Petty section, rooting for their favorite drivers, Tony Stewart, Jimmy Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Elliot Sadler.
But it was the Kasey Kahne fan that wasn't with them that they remembered most and a fan-in-waiting who did attend, that brought it all full circle. In memory of the friend they had recently lost they had a special Kasey Kahne sticker on their car made in his honor. And before entering the track, they all gathered around Matt's wife April, who was seven and a half months pregnant, for a family photo. The couple have already named their soon-to-be-born son Eben, in honor of their friend who had died.
Though not yet born, Eben Peters got to enjoy his first Martinsville race day at the grandest of all gatherings ? amidst the roar of the cars and the warmth of the womb.