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Tuesday October 15, 2019

It’s an illusion, according to Matt McCall and he’s not talking about Martinsville Speedway’s super flat, super short straightaways that end nearly as soon as they begin.

It’s the ends, McCall says, those turns that connect the short straightaways that can cause headaches for drivers and crew chiefs alike. Part concrete, part asphalt, all trouble.

Martinsville Speedway hosts the First Data 500 Oct. 27. The event is the opening race for the Round of Eight in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

“The ends are way more different than they appear,” McCall, crew chief of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driven by Kurt Busch, says. “You’re uphill toward one turn and downhill toward the other.”

As a driver, he said, “it gives you a chance to change” how you get around the .533-mile track. As a crew chief … “setup-wise, it’s harder,” he said, “You’re trying to get both ends to be the same (but they aren’t.). It’s just a short track – and it’s a lot of fun,”

McCall, a native of Denver, N.C., is one of a handful of crew chiefs in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with a degree in engineering as well as experience as a racer.

At 38, he still runs the occasional Late Model race, referencing a Thanksgiving weekend gathering at Southern National in Kinley, N.C. as “pretty much the only race I can run because by then the NASCAR season is over.”

So which does he lean on most often when working through setups with Busch during their weekly search for victory lane?

“Some of both, really,” McCall said. “I feel like the driving stuff, especially as the (rules) packages change – and I don’t have the (driving) experience at the bigger tracks - there’s still a ‘feel’ aspect to it, the things that Kurt will talk about, but it’s still a lot of engineering involved in it for sure.

“I think it helps to have the driving background and the engineering background. I think it ties everything together. It’s easy to hide behind the computer and think everything’s right. But if you have a little hands-on experience, I think it just puts the (whole) package there.”

The 2019 MENCS Playoffs were the first for the McCall/Busch pairing. Busch, who qualified with a victory at Kentucky Speedway, won the championship in 2004 and has been a frequent playoff contender. McCall made it all the way to the Championship Four in 2014 as race engineer for the Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet with driver Ryan Newman. He guided former driver Jamie McMurray into the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons after joining the Ganassi organization.

Busch calls his crew chief “a diamond in the rough.”

“He reminds me a lot of Cole Pearn,” Busch said. “He is an engineer and also a former Late Model racer.

“The way he approaches his craft, you can tell he’s a racer and he’s a perfectionist.”

Pearn is crew chief for driver Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 series champion.

“His demeanor is very calm,” Busch said of McCall. “Yet when he says something, he knows he doesn’t have to say it twice. … His delivery is very calm and he doesn’t get rattled with things that might go wrong at tech, if the driver is chirping in his ears or if the balance changes from things they learned in the wind tunnel.

“He applies it and he moves forward.”

McCall has hands-on racing experience at Martinsville – and memories both good and bad.

In 2006, he was one of 43 drivers that competed in the last NASCAR Xfinity (Busch) Series race at Martinsville. His 26th-place finish wasn’t particularly memorable, but the opportunity to compete in that event was, he said. After 14 years, the series is scheduled to Martinsville in 2020.

In 2011, McCall was leading the field on the white-flag lap in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 Late Model race when contact in from a fellow competitor ended his shot at victory and a $25,000 payday.

“We got moved pretty good,” he said. “You don’t easily forget that. I had some good runs there.”

A win by his driver in this year’s First Data 500 would be huge.

“Absolutely,” McCall admitted. “I think the grandfather clock (winner’s trophy) is pretty prestigious. To win one of those is a pretty big deal.

“It’s unique – all the history. I love racing there.”

Advance ticket prices for the First Data 500 begin at $47 with youth tickets for fans 17-and-under just $25 regardless of location. Youth 17-and-under are admitted free to the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series NASCAR Hall of Fame 200-lap race on Saturday. Friday’s practice day is free to everyone.

Tags: Entertainment, Henry County, Martinsville Speedway, Motorsports, NASCAR, Racing, Ridgeway