Explaining the surprise winners from 1998 to 2001 was difficult because of the past history. It was thought by many at the time that Martinsville’s half-mile layout became somewhat of an equalizer against the high powered teams with less emphasis on horsepower, more on chassis set-up and how well a driver enters and exits the tight turns while managing their brakes throughout 500 laps. The theory still applies somewhat, but Martinsville races have now resorted back to their traditional ways with only a select few winning races since the anomaly began.
In the last eight Martinsville races to date, only Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have won. Mix in Jeff Gordon’s sweeps from 2003 and 2005 and it leaves us with only two other drivers to win there in eight years. And one of those drivers, Rusty Wallace, is retired.
Johnson came onto the Martinsville scene as a rookie in 2002 and finished 35th his first time out. Since then, he’s never finished worse than ninth, a stretch of 16 races. His ninth-place finish in the spring broke a streak a nine consecutive races that saw him finish no worse than fourth. Since 2004, Johnson has accumulated six wins at Martinsville.
Hamlin takes things up a notch when racing in front of his home-state crowds at Richmond and Martinsville. He’s already won at both tracks this season. His Martinsville win in March was his second straight there and third overall. Since finishing 37th in the spring of 2006, Hamlin has gone eight straight races finishing sixth or better.
Gordon has always been good at Martinsville, as his seven wins suggest. It was his success at Martinsville that propelled Johnson to the heights he’s reached now on the track. Gordon shared all his winning set-up notes with Johnson’s young team after he swept the 2003 season. Johnson would go on to win for the first time there in 2004. Gordon swept again in 2005, but hasn’t won since as his protégé has taken over and hasn’t let up since.
However, Gordon hasn’t struggled by any means since Johnson went on his run. Gordon has nearly matched Johnson’s consistency at Martinsville over the same span finishing no worse than ninth in 15 straight races. For 11 straight races, Gordon has been a top-five finisher.
The trio of drivers have some pretty formidable statistics for the others to contend with which is why the sports books have their odds placed so low on them this week. Hamlin and Johnson are listed as 3 to 1 co-favorites at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book while Gordon is posted at 6 to 1. Each of them had good practice sessions with none having any significant edge. Johnson’s only issue is that he’s starting 19th and will have to traverse through the tight surroundings -- hoping to escape other drivers wrecks -- while attempting to advance.
It’s been almost a decade since we’ve seen a large payout for a Martinsville race, but there is nothing wrong with taking a shot and hoping for the unexpected cycle to return. Here’s a look at the top candidates to unseat the kings of Martinsville:
Jeff Burton (20/1) led five times for 140 laps in the spring race but blew a tire with nine laps remaining. Burton battled his fellow Virginian all day, but didn’t have the final results to show for it. In the box score, it looks like a poor 20th-place finish, but in reality, Burton was better than 41 others cars all race long. After watching practice on Saturday where he was second fastest during happy hour, Burton again looks to be the one of the best on Sunday.
Tony Stewart (10/1) is the lone remaining driver to have won a race at Martinsville since 2003, having done so in 2006. He practiced well Friday in qualifying trim and will start sixth, but didn’t look so great in either of Saturday’s practices. However, with Stewart, practices aren’t the best gauge of what’s in store for race day.
Ryan Newman (30/1) is a candidate because he’s driving the same car that’s averaged a 5.7 finish in his last three Martinsville starts. He’s no stranger to success on the short track and has six top-five finishes to show for it.
Clint Bowyer (15/1) had very good practice times Saturday finishing second fastest in the early session and then following it up with third best during happy hour. Bowyer has always been one of the better flat track drivers on the circuit having just claimed a win five weeks ago at New Hampshire.
Several drivers are using their New Hampshire chassis’ this week because of the similarities in banking with Martinsville. Kevin Harvick (12/1) is one of them and looked outstanding in final practice runs. During happy hour, Harvick had the fastest consecutive 10 lap averages as well as the fastest overall average speeds. The only issue with Harvick this week is that he’s never performed well at Martinsville and he’s starting 36th. If he can stay out of trouble while passing the 35 other cars in front of him, Harvick should be able to duplicate his fifth-place run the chassis had for him at New Hampshire.
The long shots to take a look at for consideration are Mark Martin (50/1), Brad Keselowski (200/1) and Marcos Ambrose (100/1). Each showed signs of being able to compete with the elite drivers which should result in good finishes with a remote shot at winning. You never know, or at least, you never used to know for a brief four year stretch.