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 3M/ Red Cross Ford) · Two wins, two top fives, five top 10s; two poles · Average finish of 13.9 · Average Running Position of 10.3, fifth-best · Driver Rating of 107.5, third-best · Series-high 286 Fastest Laps Run · 452 Green Flag Passes, 10th-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.878 mph, fifth-fastest · 2,441 Laps in the Top 15 (73.7%), fifth-most · 291 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), third-most
Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota) · One win, two top fives, five top 10s · Average finish of 14.4 · Average Running Position of 9.0, third-best · Driver Rating of 106.2, fifth-best · 230 Fastest Laps Run, third-most · 492 Green Flag Passes, fifth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.996 mph, third-fastest · 2,790 Laps in the Top 15 (84.3%), second-most · Series-high 337 Quality Passes
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet) · Three top fives, eight top 10s · Average finish of 14.9 · Average Running Position of 12.2, eighth-best · Driver Rating of 91.4, 10th-best · 547 Green Flag Passes, second-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.451 mph, 11th-fastest · 2,277 Laps in the Top 15 (68.8%), eighth-most · 273 Quality Passes, fifth-most
Carl Edwards (No. 99 Ford EcoBoost Ford) · Three top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 12.5 · Average Running Position of 12.8, 10th-best · Driver Rating of 93.4, ninth-best · 151 Fastest Laps Run, seventh-most · 480 Green Flag Passes, seventh-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.593 mph, ninth-fastest · 2,248 Laps in the Top 15 (67.9%), ninth-most · 279 Quality Passes, fourth-most
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet) · Seven wins, 19 top fives, 22 top 10s; three poles · Average finish of 11.5 · Series-best Average Running Position of 8.1 · Series-best Driver Rating of 111.8 · 194 Fastest Laps Run, fifth-most · Series-best Average Green Flag Speed of 160.130 mph · Series-high 2,982 Laps in the Top 15 (90.1%) · 272 Quality Passes, sixth-most
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota) · One win, four top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 5.4 · Average Running Position of 8.6, second-best · Driver Rating of 108.9, second-best · 182 Fastest Laps Run, sixth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.977 mph, fourth-fastest · 2,488 Laps in the Top 15 (84.6%), fourth-most · 266 Quality Passes, seventh-most
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 KOBALT Tools Chevrolet) · Three wins, eight top fives, 11 top 10s · Average finish of 8.8 · Average Running Position of 9.9, fourth-best · Driver Rating of 107.5, fourth-best · 233 Fastest Laps Run, second-most · 485 Green Flag Passes, sixth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.069 mph, second-fastest · 2,504 Laps in the Top 15 (75.6%), third-most · 252 Quality Passes, eighth-most
Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Great Clips Chevrolet) · Three top fives, four top 10s; four poles · Average finish of 14.2 · Average Running Position of 10.4, sixth-best · Driver Rating of 99.1, sixth-best · 217 Fastest Laps Run, fourth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.655 mph, eighth-fastest · 2,318 Laps in the Top 15 (70.0%), seventh-most
Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota) · One win, two top fives, nine top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 16.7 · Average Running Position of 14.3, 12th-best · Driver Rating of 90.9, 11th-best · 113 Fastest Laps Run, ninth-most · 469 Green Flag Passes, eighth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.346 mph, 12th-fastest · 223 Quality Passes, 12th-most
Ryan Newman (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) · Seven top fives, 10 top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 12.3 · Average Running Position of 11.6, seventh-best · Driver Rating of 95.8, seventh-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.708 mph, seventh-fastest · 2,425 Laps in the Top 15 (73.3%), sixth-most
Tony Stewart (No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) · Four top fives, 11 top 10s · Average finish of 12.0 · Average Running Position of 13.9, 11th-best · Driver Rating of 89.6, 12th-best · 105 Fastest Laps Run, 10th-most · Series-high 563 Green Flag Passes · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.535 mph, 10th-fastest · 2,144 Laps in the Top 15 (64.8%), 11th-most · 300 Quality Passes, second-most
Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet) · One top five, three top 10s · Average finish of 11.4 · Average Running Position of 12.4, ninth-best · Driver Rating of 94.8, eighth-best · 125 Fastest Laps Run, eighth-most · 510 Green Flag Passes, fourth-most · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.745 mph, sixth-fastest · 250 Quality Passes, ninth-most