Mash The Gas: NASCAR Playoffs At Martinsville Speedway

Brad Keselowski leads Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. [Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

Brad Keselowski leads Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. [Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images]

by John Wiedemann

It’s time for Martinsville and the kickoff to the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

First Data 500
Martinsville Speedway
263 miles (500 laps)
Sunday, Oct. 29
3 p.m. ET
NBCSN, 2:30 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 130)
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 260)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 500)
Martinsville Speedway is the site this weekend for the First Data 500 and 500 laps around the tricky half-mile paperclip shaped track. It’s back to old-school, door-to-door, good old short track racing. Eight drivers are left to battle for the championship and many other drivers either want to play spoiler with a victory or are planning payback against someone who did them wrong earlier in the season. We’ve seen it before, Martinsville is a great place for payback.

With tight turns, there will be wrinkled up fenders and probably even more hurt feelings. Pressure is ramped up this weekend as the championship contending drivers are in need of a good start to the round and others are looking for a good finish to the season.

Martinsville never disappoints when it comes to drama, it just depends on if it is good or bad for the eight championship contenders. A win by one of the eight automatically puts them in the championship race at Homestead. Here is a look at the Round of 8 championship contenders.

Martin Truex Jr. (52 points above cutoff)
Martinsville may be the worst track in the playoffs for Martin Truex Jr. His average finish at the track of 20.391 is seventh best out of the playoff field and only only slightly better than Ryan Blaney’s average of 21. Fortunately, Truex has a lot of points to give him a cushion and his recent runs at the track have shown much improvement. At this race last year Truex won the pole, led 147 laps and finished seventh. In the spring race he qualified third, led 42 laps and finished 16th. Over the last five races he has led laps in four of them and finished in the top seven three times with an average finish of 10.6. Expect Truex to be in the mix all day, as usual.

Kyle Busch (25 points above cutoff)
What a relief it must be for Kyle Busch to put the Round of 12 behind him. Overcoming a poor run at Charlotte and a wreck at Talladega has Busch able to wipe the slate clean in a new round and start out the Round of 8 in second place in the standings. Busch finished second at Martinsville in the spring and led a race high 274 of the 500 laps. Running a streak of four consecutive top five finishes at Martinsville, including a win in last season’s spring race where he dominated with 352 laps led, Kyle will continue to be tough this weekend and will contest for the win.

Brad Keselowski (9 points above cutoff)
This weekend will be key for Brad Keselowski. Martinsville Speedway is Keselowski’s best shot at a win in the next three races and the golden ticket to the championship race. Keselowski won at Martinsville in the spring for his first victory at the track. With an average finish of 12.9 and only three finishes outside of the top ten since 2011, Keselowski knows how to get around the paperclip. Brad is my pick to get the victory and another grandfather clock this weekend.

Kevin Harvick (0 points above cutoff)
Kind of a sleeper in the playoffs so far, Kevin Harvick is doing just enough to make it through the rounds and not get eliminated. With only three top eight finishes in the six races so far Harvick has only led laps at the three 1.5 mile tacks and otherwise hasn’t contended for a victory. I expect the same this weekend as Martinsville hasn’t really been a good track for him. Since joining Stewart Haas Racing Harvick’s best finish has been seventh with two other eighth place finishes in the seven races and an average finish of 16.1. I would expect somewhere around a tenth place finish this weekend with the team looking ahead to Texas as a track where they can shine.

Jimmie Johnson (0 points below cutoff)
Jimmie Johnson is the king of Martinsville with nine race wins there. Well….. he is the king and is the defending champion of this race, but there are others grabbing for the crown. While he got the win last year, he hasn’t led laps in the other five of the last six races and finished 15th this spring. It is the playoffs and the time that Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports #48 team picks up the pace, but we haven’t really seen that from them, even at Dover where he finished 3rd at a track where he has eleven wins. This is going to be a tough group to come out of as one of the final four and I’m not sure this is Johnson’s year.

Denny Hamlin (3 points below cutoff)
If you are looking for a driver to win at Martinsville, you should have Denny Hamlin on your list. With an average start of 9.7 and average finish of 10.1, you know he is good at this track. Add in five wins, two poles, 12 top five and 17 top ten finishes in 23 starts and Denny is the man. Now throw in the success that Joe Gibbs Racing has at the track and how those Toyotas have been running lately including Hamlin’s current streak in the of three top six finishes and I may want to change my pick for the win. Look for Denny to be there at the end and bump into the top four in the standings when the checkers wave at Martinsville.

Ryan Blaney (8 points below cutoff)
I didn’t expect Ryan Blaney to make it into the Round of 8, but I couldn’t be happier. How cool would it be for Blaney and the Wood Brothers to be in the final four at Homestead. It’s a longshot and it starts this weekend at a track where Blaney doesn’t have much experience and the numbers show it. Blaney finished 19th in both races at Martinsville last year and finished 25th this spring. The good news is his qualifying hasn’t been bad and he started the spring race in seventh. Another qualifying run like that could really boost his chances this weekend. Texas and Phoenix are definitely better tracks for Blaney but he still has a lot to overcome to make the final four.

Chase Elliott (11 points below cutoff)
With teammate Jimmie Johnson being the king at Martinsville, Chase Elliott may be the prince. In four career Cup races at the track, Elliott’s improvement is remarkable. From a finish of 38th in his first race there, Elliott finished 20th in his second, 12th in his third and 3rd after leading 20 laps in the spring.
Elliott has also been great in the playoffs so far with his worst finish coming at Talladega after a crash while running up front. He also has three runner-up finishes to give him an average finish of 6.1. Looking at the numbers, one has to think that first race win should be arriving soon and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it come this weekend or next weekend at Texas.

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