Arriving into Martinsville with Halloween upon us no one should be shocked by the chilling weather that is bringing snow to a large part of the east coast. But this talk of snow is not going to stop us from running the TUMS Fast Relief 500.
Martinsville has the potential to be another wild card race, but not for the reasons most fans are thinking. Jamming 43 cars on a half-mile bullring is a recipe for excitement. In the past, it was also a recipe for disaster, but NASCAR’s new car is much more durable than its predecessor. Last week, Joey Logano was able to race competitively in a mangled Toyota and this week someone will most likely finish in the front half of the field with a flattened right side after scrubbing along the wall in the 500-lapper.
What makes Martinsville a potential wild card, however, is race control. Fewer cautions are being waved in the first half of races this season, which contributes to long green flag segments. On a short track, that means a lot of cars will go a lap down, but that is not as catastrophic as it was in the past. With the “Wave Around” and “Free Pass” rules, most of those drivers can make up lost ground and that puts pressure on the final segment of the race. In this spring’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 a caution waved when Regan Smith slammed the wall in the shadow of the finish. It came on the back edge of a green flag segment of pit stops and Smith was one of only 13 drivers on the lead lap. Another six were listed one lap down. In a season of strange occurrences, the same kind of thing could happen this week.
Call me crazy but my first favorite this weekend is…..Denny Hamlin. Standing alone in 11th place on the points list with just four races remaining, Denny Hamlin has virtually no shot at winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Having said that, Hamlin definitely has a chance at winning this week’s race at Martinsville. Why? Well, he’s the two-time defending champion and has never finished outside the top-10 at this race in six years. Hamlin and Johnson have dominated at Martinsville since the fall of 2006, winning every race except this year’s spring race which went to Kevin Harvick. Hamlin had won three straight and four overall prior to Harvick, while Johnson had posted five wins in a six-race span.
How good has Johnson been at Martinsville? In 19 career starts, he has finished outside the top-10 just twice (2002, 2010). So naturally Jimmie Johnson is my other favorite pick for the race. Johnson defeated Dale Earnhardt Jr in 2008 by less than a second for win number 39. Also, Johnson became the first back-to-back winner of this race since Darrell Waltrip captured three straight in 1987-89, when he won in 2007. Johnson’s Chase hopes still have a chance.
Some will call me crazy and say I need a new outlook on the Chase; but, Kevin Harvick is nothing more than a dark horse. Yes, I realize that Harvick is a favorite among a lot of the members of SportsRantz NASCAR Fan Council but, that wreck last week will be a lot harder to come back from than anyone knows. Last fall during the 2010 Chase, he cracked the top five for the first time in his career on this track and he had to overcome a dismal starting position of 36th to do so. This spring, he led only a handful of laps to win the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, but to grab the victory he made a dramatic late-race pass on Dale Earnhardt Jr. He needs another run like that one to help keep him in the championship hunt.
Logano is entering a part of the schedule that he particularly likes. Charlotte, Talladega, and Martinsville have all been kind to him in his fledgling career; in fact all three tracks are listed among his five best in terms of average finishes. Martinsville is second with a result of 13.0 in five starts and what makes him predictably good here is that nearly all of his results have come in a narrow band of results sixth through 13th. He has one bad finish in his inaugural Martinsville attempt and one stellar result of second in spring 2010 and hopefully help promote him to staying in the #20 in the next seasons to come.
Roush Fenway Racing has not been traditionally strong on short, flat tracks and while they are turning their program around at Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix, and New Hampshire, this is still one of the biggest hurdles Edwards and Kenseth need to clear. Edwards swept the top-10 last year, but those are two of only four such finishes that he has in 14 starts and his career average of 16.9 makes this his third-worst course behind the two plate tracks. Kenseth’s top-10 this spring was aided by the late-race caution and it was his best result in two years. His career-average finish is slightly better than Edwards’ at 15.8, but that modest showing is reinforced by an equally bad record at Phoenix and Richmond.
Tony Stewart is another Chase contender who hopes to survive Martinsville. He’s been much improved on short, flat tracks this year with five top-10s in six starts at Phoenix, Richmond, and New Hampshire, but the one race in which he struggled is much more significant. While running strong elsewhere, Stewart’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 was a comedy of errors. Early in the race, he overdrove a corner and nearly wrecked after getting marbles on his tires and just before the mid-point of the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, he was black flagged for changing lanes too soon on a restart. That caused him to lose a lap and he kept falling until he ultimately finished 34th. That was his third consecutive finish outside the top 20 at Martinsville.
Whew, made it through the preview without getting frostbitten! I hope everyone dresses warm while at the track this weekend! Good Luck to all the teams and safe travels to everyone!