The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup hit the halfway point last Saturday night and now heads to Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500. Martinsville, which was on the very first Strictly Stock (what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series) schedule in 1949, has had its share of dramatic events. This weekend should be no different. Call this event, “Wild Card Race No. 1.” The tight confines of Martinsville often lead to unpredictable – and heated – outcomes.
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returns to action, also at Martinsville, with the Kroger 200. After four consecutive open weeks, the truck season hits its stretch-run with five consecutive races.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads Gateway International Raceway for its final standalone of the season, the Five-Hour Energy 250. Nabbing his fifth win of the season last weekend, Brad Keselowski closes in on his first national series title.
Storylines for the weekend follow.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Chase At The Halfway Point – Martinsville Implications
A big-time shootout has developed at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings between four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and two drivers trying to win the title for first time – second-place Denny Hamlin and third-place Kevin Harvick. The site of this week’s event, .526-mile Martinsville Speedway, seriously favors Johnson and Hamlin. Between them they’ve won the last eight races there and Hamlin is going for his third consecutive victory there. Harvick? He has never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville, but does have two wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Gordon May Be A Long Shot, But Don’t Count Him Out
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon has fallen 156 points behind Johnson, in fourth place. That may not be encouraging, but there’s precedent for a comeback. In 2006, Johnson was 146 points out of first with five races to go – and came back to win the title for the first time.
Gordon has a long history of success at Martinsville, winning seven career races there, which trails only Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11) for most all-time.
Martinsville = Unpredictability
When you get right down to it, there’s really no telling how the Chase standings will look coming out of Martinsville. With its short distance and tight, paperclip-shaped layout, mishaps are a given. On every lap, drivers are a miscue away from a multi-car pileup – and extended pit stop.
First McMurray, Then…Who?
McMurray played the part of spoiler brilliantly last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, sealing his reputation as a big-stage performer. A non-Chase driver has won a Chase race 13 times, the last two instances by McMurray (Talladega last year, and Charlotte).
Will the rare phenomenon occur again this weekend? Maybe. The two most likely candidates: Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Logano finished second at Martinsville last March, and is coming of a strong seventh-place run at Charlotte. Newman owns one of the top Driver Ratings at Martinsville among non-Chasers, at 87.8.
Greg Biffle (No. 16 Ortho Ford) · Five top fives, eight top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 17.3 · Average Running Position of 15.3, 10th-best · Driver Rating of 88.7, eighth-best · 303 Fastest Laps Run, fifth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.378 mph, ninth-fastest · 3,918 Laps in the Top 15 (54.6%), ninth-most · 700 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), ninth-most
Kurt Busch (No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet) · One win, six top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 19.4 · Driver Rating of 84.4, 12th-best · 216 Fastest Laps Run, eighth-most · 3,833 Laps in the Top 15 (53.4%), 10th-most
Kyle Busch (No. 18 Skittles Toyota) · 10 top fives, 14 top 10s; two poles · Average finish of 15.1 · Average Running Position of 9.8, second-best · Driver Rating of 106.7, second-best · 478 Fastest Laps Run, third-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 177.219 mph, second-fastest · 5,624 Laps in the Top 15 (78.4%), second-most · 1,007 Quality Passes, second-most
Carl Edwards (No. 19 Subway Toyota) · Six top fives, 13 top 10s · Average finish of 11.3 · Average Running Position of 14.6, ninth-best · Driver Rating of 89.6, seventh-best · 1,671 Green Flag Passes, second-most · 4,450 Laps in the Top 15 (62.0%), seventh-most · 848 Quality Passes, fifth-most
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet) · Five wins, 17 top fives, 24 top 10s; nine poles · Average finish of 15.5 · Average Running Position of 14.2, seventh-best · Driver Rating of 91.6, sixth-best · 280 Fastest Laps Run, sixth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.644 mph, third-fastest · 4,562 Laps in the Top 15 (63.6%), sixth-most · 826 Quality Passes, sixth-most
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota) · Four top fives, 11 top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 13.5 · Average Running Position of 12.6, fourth-best · Driver Rating of 92.8, fifth-best · 239 Fastest Laps Run, seventh-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.433 mph, sixth-fastest · 4,837 Laps in the Top 15 (71.4%), third-most · 791 Quality Passes, seventh-most
Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Budweiser / Jimmy John’s Chevrolet) · Three wins, five top fives, 11 top 10s · Average finish of 15.8 · Average Running Position of 16.4, 12th-best · Driver Rating of 84.7, 11th-best · 214 Fastest Laps Run, ninth-most · 1,609 Green Flag Passes, fourth-most · 4,254 Laps in the Top 15 (59.3%), eighth-most · 743 Quality Passes, eighth-most
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Patriotic Chevrolet) · Seven wins, 13 top fives, 17 top 10s; four poles · Average finish of 11.4 · Series-best Average Running Position of 7.6 · Series-best Driver Rating of 111.6 · Series-high 688 Fastest Laps Run · 1,444 Green Flag Passes, 12th-most · Series-best Average Green Flag Speed of 177.298 mph · Series-high 6,277 Laps in the Top 15 (87.5%) · Series-high 1,031 Quality Passes
Kasey Kahne (No. 5 LIFTMASTER Chevrolet) · Four wins, nine top fives, 13 top 10s · Average finish of 11.5 · Average Running Position of 11.8, third-best · Driver Rating of 100.8, third-best · 667 Fastest Laps Run, second-most · 1,642 Green Flag Passes, third-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.601 mph, fourth-fastest · 4,725 Laps in the Top 15 (65.9%), fourth-most · 874 Quality Passes, third-most
Matt Kenseth (No. 20 DEWALT Toyota) · Two wins, nine top fives, 16 top 10s · Average finish of 13.6 · Average Running Position of 13.8, fifth-best · Driver Rating of 95.5, fourth-best · 379 Fastest Laps Run, fourth-most · 1,531 Green Flag Passes, sixth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.531 mph, fifth-fastest · 4,680 Laps in the Top 15 (65.2%), fifth-most · 854 Quality Passes, fourth-most
Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Miller Lite Ford) · One win, two top fives, three top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 15.7 · Average Running Position of 14.6, eighth-best · Driver Rating of 86.5, 10th-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.408 mph, eighth-fastest
Joey Logano (No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford) · Four top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 10.0 · Average Running Position of 14.0, sixth-best · Driver Rating of 88.4, ninth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 176.344 mph, 11th-fastest