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AP file photo by Steve Helber / After taking Easter Sunday off, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action Saturday night at Martinsville Speedway, the 0.526-mile Virginia oval nicknamed the "Paperclip" and known for it steep learning curve.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Brad Keselowski didn't get the finish he hoped for two weeks ago when NASCAR's Cup Series ran on the temporary dirt surface at Bristol Motor Speedway, but the 2012 season champion didn't dwell too long on his 11th-place finish at the Tennessee track.

After all, Virginia was the next stop — or make that stops.

"When we got out of Bristol, I left with a smile on my face knowing that we had Martinsville, we had Richmond — those are two of my best race tracks," the 37-year-old Team Penske driver said. "At Martinsville we've been just so solid the last few times, and then Richmond was kind of a dominant race for us last fall."

NASCAR's top circuit is on a stretch of three races in a row on tracks shorter than a mile, and while many of his fellow drivers also cut their racing teeth on such ovals, Keselowski has a particular affinity for them. Of his 34 career Cup Series wins, three are at Bristol with two each at Martinsville and Richmond.

Both of his wins on Martinsville's 0.526-mile oval, the series' oldest and shortest circuit, came in the spring, and Keselowski said the "Paperclip" is a track that often vexes drivers, especially early.

"Some tracks it just seems like it takes longer for things to click, and Martinsville seems to be one of them in my mind," he said, adding there's a certain patience required, something he had to learn before winning there in April 2017 and March 2019.

"The first thing I would say is if Martinsville were a golf course, it would be a 50-hole golf course," he said. "It's a 500-lap race, so if you get behind early there are plenty of opportunities to catch up, and even to expand upon that with the advent of the wave-arounds and the lucky dogs and stages, it's never been easier to catch up from behind in NASCAR, so I think having the mental strength and capacity to acknowledge that, work through it and play that to your advantage is super important.

"Not everybody has it, but the best do and they're able to succeed."

Martin Truex Jr. — the 2017 Cup Series champion and the winner March 14 at Phoenix Raceway — has learned that, too, winning two of the past three races at Martinsville, most recently last June.

"Definitely patience is key," he said Friday. "It's a long race, and obviously you need to be around at the end."

Through seven races this season, no driver has won more than once, creating playoff pressure early in the schedule. After Martinsville Speeday and Richmond Raceway, it's on to Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas Speedway and then Darlington Raceway — and all five of those tracks are on the schedule for the 10-race playoffs later this year.

Conditions are likely to be different at those venues in the fall, but every bit of information helps, Truex said.

"Look forward to hopefully running well and hopefully getting a few more wins and building a notebook for the playoffs," he explained. "It's definitely an important thing."

Hendrick Motorsports' Chase Elliott won at Martinsville last November, then again the following weekend at Phoenix to complete the run to his first Cup Series title. Second through fourth places at Martinsville were filled by Team Penske drivers: Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano and Keselowski.

That race proved disappointing for William Byron, who'd driven the Hendrick No. 24 Chevrolet to an eighth-place finish at Martinsville in June. He believed he had another top-10 run going until mechanical problems relegated him to a 35th-place finish.

Byron had fought his way all the up to eighth despite starting at the rear several times that day.

"You have to adapt to kind of how the rubber lays down. It's just a very difficult rhythm place. A little bit off is a lot," he said Friday. "You can go a lap down pretty easily. It's just kind of a rhythm place. You have to find that."

It's also a place, Byron said, where many champions win.

"It's an experience place," he said. "It's a really tough place."

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