Mash The Gas: Martinsville Preview

Joey Logano leads a pack of cars at Martinsville Speedway. [Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images]

Joey Logano leads a pack of cars at Martinsville Speedway. [Credit: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The third round of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup begins Sunday as the oldest and smallest track on the circuit, the Martinsville Speedway, hosts the Goody’s Fast Relief 500.

Goody’s Fast Relief 500
Martinsville Speedway
263 miles (500 laps)
Sunday, Oct. 30
1 p.m. ET
NBCSN, 12:30 p.m. ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Martinsville is a tight paper-clip shaped track with concrete corners and curbs where drivers push and shove their way around for 500 grueling laps, often leading to flared tempers both during and after the race.

A win on Sunday at tough little Martinsville by a Chase driver also means an automatic berth to the finals and a shot at the Sprint Cup so all eight of the remaining championship contenders should be going all out for a victory.

To be successful at Martinsville requires the correct balance of finesse and toughness as drivers have to be careful not to burn up their brakes while at the same time they can’t be afraid to use the front bumper to forge ahead. One thing is for certain, whoever wins the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday will definitely have worked for it and here are a few drivers to watch.…

Jimmie Johnson (Dan Margetta)
After seeing it slip away the last few years, the elusive and record-tying seventh championship is in Jimmie Johnson’s sights this season and Martinsville is the perfect place for him to vault himself into the finals. Johnson won the opening race of the last Chase round at Charlotte and he is the most successful of the Chasers at Martinsville where he owns eight victories to go along with eighteen top five finishes. Johnson finished ninth here in the Spring race and the #48 Hendrick Motorsports team has been firing on all cylinders all Chase long. Johnson enters Martinsville as a 4-1 odds on favorite to win and he should be one of the main contenders on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson is currently enjoying his best Chase performance since the elimination format went into effect and with that seventh championship looming on the horizon, Martinsville is an enticing place to punch his ticket to the Homestead finale. The team as a whole is solid and he’s my pick to win this weekend.

Denny Hamlin (John Wiedemann)
Five-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin is looking for number six this weekend and a pass to the Championship round of the Chase. Hamlin has competed at Martinsville in 21 Cup Series events and has finished in the top ten 16 times, with 11 of those in the top five and an average finish of 9.5. Hamlin barely snuck in to this Round of 8 by tying Austin Dillon for the eighth in the standings and winning the tie-breaker. Now at his home state track, Hamlin can set himself up for the Championship. Although Texas and Phoenix aren’t bad tracks for Hamlin, it would be great to get the free pass right away and not go down to the wire like he did in the last round. Hamlin is also looking to avoid the “embarrassing wheel-hop” while running in fifth place that caused him to wreck out of the spring race at Martinsville prior to the halfway point of the race. Look for a much better result this weekend, possibly a victory.

Kyle Busch(DM)
Kyle Busch dominated the Spring race at Martinsville as he led 352 of 500 laps to score his first win here despite finishing in the top five in just about half his starts. He enters the race this weekend at 6-1 odds to win and there is no question he is aggressive enough to get the job done at Martinsville. Busch also finished fifth in this race last year and he would like nothing more than to get a chance to defend his Sprint Cup title by punching his ticket to Homestead with a win on Sunday. Kyle Busch and the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing team have been a force to be reckoned with all season and as we approach the crunch time in the Chase leading up to the championship race they should still be regarded not only as a strong contender for the race win but for the Sprint Cup as well.

Joey Logano (JW)
In the spring Martinsville race, Joey Logano finished just outside the top ten after starting on the pole and leading 21 laps. In this race last fall, Logano finished 37th after hitting the wall while leading the race. Well, he had a little help. This year should be different since I don’t think that Logano has a boiling over feud with any of the drivers coming into this race. Logano isn’t great at Martinsville, with no wins (could have been one last year) and an average finish of 14.6. Without any drama, a solid top ten, maybe even top five should be expected this weekend. Don’t expect the lone Ford driver in the Chase to be given any breaks this weekend and if someone has a grudge against him, he could get roughed up again… but not as bad as last year.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Matt Kenseth has made it into the Chase round of eight and unlike last year, comes to Martinsville still very much in title contention. While Kenseth has yet to win at Martinsville, he has turned in some very strong performances on the bull ring. He finished 15th here in the Spring and if you throw out last October’s Joey Logano run in, his finishes here are 4th, 6th, 6th, and 2nd and he enters Martinsville this weekend at 7-1 odds to win. After seeing the Logano incident replayed about a million times already as well as no doubt countless times at the track this weekend, Matt Kenseth is sure to be looking to provide a new Martinsville highlight reel with his first victory and a shot at his first championship since the beginning of the Chase era.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
Of the three tracks in the Chase Round of 8, Martinsville isn’t the best for Kevin Harvick. Harvick led 72 laps in the spring race, the second highest of the race, but ultimately finished 17th – not what he will be looking for this weekend. With a win at the paperclip shaped track and the fourth best driver rating amongst the final eight drivers in the Chase, Harvick should be able to position himself pretty well in the Chase standings. AS always, Harvick will be quick as the Stewart-Haas team cars unload off the truck with good speed. It is what happens in the race that really makes the difference. Solid pit stops with no mistakes have been lacking for the team in the past but so far, the 29 team has been performing well. I predict a solid top five finish for Harvick and believe this round won’t feature the drama of past rounds and he will be one of the final four when it comes to Homestead.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Kurt Busch has been one of the most consistent drivers this season and while he has won a race in 2016, his twenty top ten finishes have helped to secure himself a spot in the final eight. Busch does have two wins at Martinsville and he does have the skills necessary to get around the paper-clip half-mile pretty well. He finished 13th in the Spring race and is looking to better his Chase performance from a year ago where bad luck here in the Fall derailed his championship hopes. He’s very well aware that a win here at Martinsville would put him directly in contention for the Sprint Cup and he seems determined to go out and get it while at the same time realizing in the big picture, a strong run is just as important. Kind of like Ryan Newman in 2014, Kurt Busch could be a sleeper in this year’s Chase and despite being listed at 18-1 odds to win, he shouldn’t be overlooked when trying to identify drivers to look out for on Sunday.

Jeff Gordon (JW)
Last on the list this week is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR as well as Martinsville history. Jeff Gordon is likely making his final run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and there probably isn’t a better track for him to do it at. Gordon has the top driver ranking at Martinsville, two points better than teammate Jimmie Johnson and 11.4 points better than third place Denny Hamlin. In 46 races, Gordon has an average starting position of 7.196, an average finish of 6.761, 29 top five finishes (one behind all-time leader Richard Petty), 37 top ten finishes (tied with Petty), five runner-up finishes (two behind Dale Earnhardt), and nine wins. Gordon is the defending champion of this race and the four-time Cup Series Champion could add one more win to his victory total this weekend. No matter what he does, Jeff Gordon is one to watch this weekend and deserves another salute as he races into the sunset.

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