Mash The Gas: Martinsville Preview

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads from the largest track on the tour at Talladega to the oldest and smallest venue on the circuit as the Martinsville Speedway hosts the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 Sunday afternoon. Unlike Talladega, aerodynamics play no part in the action at Martinsville as the Sprint Cup drivers engage in 500 laps of fender-rubbing, slam-bang, old fashioned short track racing where the winner’s car will likely sport scuff marks and wheel donuts.

Martinsville’s paper-clip shape with flat concrete turns is especially tough on brakes and the championship contenders will have to be mindful not to burn their brakes up before the checkered flag falls. Only once since 2008 has the point leader exiting Martinsville not gone on to win the Sprint Cup so the weekend could be especially important for the driver topping the point standings at the end of the race.

Here are some drivers and story lines to watch on Sunday.

Matt Kenseth
Dan Margetta: Everyone wants to write off Matt Kenseth in the championship fight now that he has lost the point lead to Jimmie Johnson and that sentiment especially comes to light at Martinsville where his record is less than stellar. Kenseth once compared the action at Martinsville to racing 500 laps around two light poles in a parking lot and he has yet to win here. However, many seem to forget he does have three top five finishes here and he led 96 laps in the Spring race. Also, remember what happened at the last flat track he was supposed to stumble at? He promptly won and dominated the race at New Hampshire. Don’t count Matt Kenseth out of the title hunt just yet and a good run and a point gain on Jimmie Johnson would ramp up the pressure on the #48 team. When Matt Kenseth is determined, he historically performs at a much higher level and last week’s mediocre finish combined with a crash in testing at Texas on Tuesday should leave Kenseth and the #20 team extremely determined heading into Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson
John Wiedemann: Jimmie Johnson is superman at Martinsville. In twenty three races at the “paperclip”, Johnson has finished in the top ten twenty times and has an average finish of 5.3. Johnson’s eight wins rank him third all time behind Richard Petty with fifteen and Darrell Waltrip with twelve. In the last two races at Martinsville Johnson has scored the pole, led the most laps and won the race. So, it is not going out on a limb to pick Johnson to win this weekend, it’s pretty much hanging around the trunk of the tree. All that being said, don’t expect anyone to lay down and give the race to the #48. The other drivers know that if they can beat Johnson at Martinsville, they will have really done something. But, I’m picking Johnson to win this weekend, there is really no one else.

Denny Hamlin
DM: Since returning from his back injury earlier in the season, Denny Hamlin and the #11 team have fallen off the face of the earth with no top five finishes since May. That could change Sunday as the Virginia native returns to his home state and Martinsville where he has almost always raced strong. It’s time for Denny Hamlin to be a good teammate in a legal manner and it’s his job this week to take points away from Jimmie Johnson, namely lead the most laps and win the race. His four wins here are proof that Hamlin and the team are good enough to make that happen and a win Sunday could salvage a difficult and disappointing season to date.

Kurt Busch
JW: It’s about time for Kurt Busch to step back in the spotlight and there is no better place than a short track. Past races at Martinsville haven’t very good for Busch. Busch has gone fifteen races without a top ten and seventeen without a top five finish at Martinsville, but I think he’ll pick it back up this weekend and run at the front. The 2002 winner of this race will find his groove and battle the leaders. His chances for a championship are beyond slim at this point but a strong finish in his season with Furniture Row Racing is on tap and I think he can round out the season in the top five in points, a great accomplishment for a driver that many thought was done with the sport.

Jeff Gordon
DM: If Jeff Gordon and the #24 team are serious about challenging for this championship, they need to win a race to show they are capable of closing the deal. Gordon has seven Martinsville wins, although none since 2005, but he ran strong here in the Spring and finished an impressive third. Jeff Gordon is certainly talented enough to win here and the only question is how aggressive is he willing to be if the race comes down to a shoving match for the win. He’s been on the short end of a few door banging battles for a victory here with Jimmie Johnson and if it comes down to the two of them on Sunday, we’ll see just how much Gordon is willing to show ole’ “Five Time” he has more to lose than the four-time champion.

Clint Bowyer
JW: Clint Bowyer seems to find the excitement or make the excitement at Martinsville. He has remained pretty quiet in the Chase so far but this may be the coming out party. Bowyer has three top five and nine top ten finishes in fifteen tries at Martinsville with an average finish of 13.2. Bowyer climbed from running around 15th at halfway to finish 2nd with a car torn up from a lap 180 wreck in this spring’s race at Martinsville. If he keeps the car in one piece this weekend he just may be able to knock Jimmie Johnson off his block.

Kyle Busch
DM: Kyle Busch is another driver who has plenty of toughness and talent on his side but still lacks a Martinsville victory. Busch was the big winner point wise last weekend at Talladega and now that he’s back within striking distance for the championship, his mission for the final four events is to “just win, baby.” This go for broke strategy should suit Busch’s style well and he had success here in the Spring, finishing fifth after leading 56 laps. It’s time for Busch and the #18 team to make their charge for the championship and anyone in their way could get their feathers ruffled. Martinsville’s close quarters racing should produce a good opportunity for Busch to root his way closer to the championship lead.

Ryan Newman
JW: When the leaders wrecked in front of him, Ryan Newman drove past them all to take a surprising win at Martinsville in April 2012. It is important to be at the front and also be ready for anything to happen at the front of the pack and even sometimes to make things happen. A late race restart can turn what was a dominant day for the leader into a win for a car further in the pack. Newman has that one win at Martinsville as a part of four top ten finishes in nine races while he has been driving for Stewart Haas Racing. Can Newman make the magic happen again this weekend? Well, he’ll probably be near the front again, all he needs is a little help from his friends.

Jamie McMurray
DM: Coming off his Talladega win, Jamie McMurray is my long shot pick this weekend at Martinsville. The victory should provide the team with some momentum and McMurray had a good race here earlier in the season where he finished seventh. If “Jamie Mac” doesn’t let himself get pushed around too much on Sunday, the #1 team could find themselves in victory lane for the second consecutive weekend.

Kevin Harvick
JW: Kevin Harvick sits tied for third in the standings, twenty-six points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Including this weekend there are four races left, which means that Harvick needs to out-point Johnson by seven markers in each race. A dominating race by Johnson this weekend could bury the championship chances for Harvick. Add to the fact that the next two races at Texas and Phoenix are great tracks for Johnson and Harvick has his work cut out for him. It has been a great season and somewhat unexpected for the “lame-duck” driver who is leaving Richard Childress Racing for Stewart Haas Racing next season. I expect Harvick to finish strong, but I think the championship is out of his reach this season.

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