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.
1 - Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Budweiser / Jimmy John's Chevrolet) · Season-to-Date Driver Rating: 118.8 2015 Rundown · Three wins, 22 top fives, 27 top 10s, · Led 2248 laps · Average Finish of 8.9 Homestead-Miami Speedway Outlook: · One win, six top fives, 12 top 10s · Average finish of 7.571, series-best · Average Running Position of 10.030, fourth-best · Driver Rating of 102.5, fourth-best · 2072 Laps in the Top 15 (77.6), fourth-most · 435 Quality Passes, seventh-most
2 - Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet) · Season-to-Date Driver Rating: 92.5 2015 Rundown · One win, five top fives, 20 top 10s, · Led 256 laps · Average Finish of 13.9 Homestead-Miami Speedway Outlook: · One win, seven top fives, 12 top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 10.563, seventh-best · Average Running Position of 11.465, fifth-best · Driver Rating of 100.7, fifth-best · 1998 Laps in the Top 15 (74.8), seventh-most · 467 Quality Passes, fifth-most
3 - Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Crispy Toyota) · Season-to-Date Driver Rating: 107 2015 Rundown · Four wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s, · Led 695 laps · Average Finish of 11.2 Homestead-Miami Speedway Outlook: · One top five, three top 10s · Average finish of 23.1, 25th-best · Average Running Position of 16.056, 13th-best · Driver Rating of 91.5, ninth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 162.019, eighth-fastest · 1696 Laps in the Top 15 (63.5), 10th-most · 422 Quality Passes, eighth-most
4 - Martin Truex, Jr (No. 78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet) · Season-to-Date Driver Rating: 100 2015 Rundown · One win, eight top fives, 22 top 10s, · Led 564 laps · Average Finish of 12.2 Homestead-Miami Speedway Outlook: · Three top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 10, second-best · Average Running Position of 9.037, second-best · Driver Rating of 106.6, third-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 162.357, series-fastest · 1981 Laps in the Top 15 (82.4), second-most · 563 Quality Passes, series-most