Friday, October 28, 2011

Martinsville Preview

By Micah Roberts

Last week's race at Talladega was every bit the wild card anticipated of the Chase and more. Only four races remain and the picture has become much clearer with some of the top names like Jimmie Johnson (-50 pts), Kevin Harvick (-26) and Kyle Busch (-40) tumbling backwards with poor finishes.

Johnson, who is attempting to expand upon his never done before five championships, was the biggest mystery of last Sunday. His tandem partner for the race was Dale Earnhardt Jr and between them, they had the fastest two cars. Add in their plate racing excellence and you should have the make-up a duo that should have finished in the top five.

But for some reason they got cute and outsmarted themselves. They thought by waiting in the back of the pack for the entire race they could avoid trouble and then make their move with five to six laps to go. What they didn’t figure out in their whole master plan is that a few cautions in the final laps would hurt their chances of getting up to speed quicker and being better than everyone.

At the end of the day Johnson finished 26th and fell 50-points behind leader Carl Edwards, who used a similar cautious tactic, but made his move earlier. The end results was an 11th-place finish for Edwards, a result he considers like a win. Matt Kenseth finished 18th, but still put a separation between he and his closest competitors, other than his teammate Edwards.

The two of them have a nice head start going into Martinsville this week and they’re going to need it because it hasn’t been their best track. Kenseth is currently 14 points behind while Brad Keselowski is 18 behind with Tony Stewart 19 back.

Jeff Gordon had his season, one that needed a top-3 finish to get back into the Chase race, smacked away by a kid a helped win the Daytona 500 for. Trevor Bayne was taught how to run the draft by Gordon in the Gatorade Duels. Gordon took the rookie under his wing and the kid goes on to win the 500 the following week using all the insights gained from Gordon.

On the Final restart, Gordon had been shuffled away from his partner, Mark Martin, and Bayne had lost his too. Bayne and Gordon formed an immediate alliance through the radio and with the way Gordon was racing on the final laps, he looked to have the car to beat with Bayne‘s help. He was as intense and daring as I’ve seen in a while and he was moving up. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have caught and passed the leaders.

But then Bayne got team orders on the radio that he was to run with Kenseth, who had lost his partner, and not Gordon who he agreed to run with. Roush Racing helps build the Wood Brothers car that Bayne drives, cars that are both Ford’s while Gordon drives a Chevy.

With no one pushing him, Gordon fell back all the way to 27th and essentially slammed the door on his season. Bayne was distraught afterwards and tweeted several apologies, but the damage was done. The teacher got taken by the student which will probably make Gordon rethink who he shares his wealth of wisdom with in the future.

It may sound as though the Chase is down to just a few drivers, but because Edwards and Kenseth have run so poorly at Martinsville over the years, this almost becomes as big a wild card race for them as Talladega was for everyone else.

Kenseth only has two top-5 finishes in 23 starts at Martinsville, but has maintained a steady 15.2 average finish position, something he'd like to better in this race, but knows he has to stay patient.

“Probably the most challenging part for me at Martinsville is being calm, thinking through things, and not doing something because you are mad," said Kenseth who finished sixth in the April race. "I don’t like getting run into and I don’t like running into other people and it’s bound to happen there since it’s such a small track. There is no room to move and there is not an outside groove where you have another choice to pass. It is one of the tracks that takes all the patience that I have usually. The first thing is getting the car to go fast all the time, be smooth and drive it like I am supposed to there. After that, it’s being patient and using your head to get the best finish you can.”

Edwards is now the 5-to-8 (-160) favorites to win the Championship at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book now that Johnson has slid to depths that not even a Superman like him can get out of. But if you do believe in miracles, odds on Johnson winning the title are at a never before seen price of 40-to-1 with four races to go.

Martinsville is not Edwards' best track by any means. He finished 18th in the April race and has a 16.9 average finish in 14 starts with his only top-5 being third-place in 2008. He's bringing a new chassis with him to the track, but still isn't very confident coming in.

“I am a little nervous about Martinsville," admitted Edwards. "I think if we can pick up just a tiny bit of speed there we will be good. Otherwise, that will be one of the tracks we go to and just fight and claw for a top 10 and that is how it usually is for me there. I would like to be surprised and would love to run better but I am a little nervous about that one to be honest.”

Kevin Harvick won this race in the spring and could shave off all kinds of points before heading into the final three races. He has a major edge coming into this race and there could be some value with his Championship odds at 8-to-1. Although Harvick grew up racing on these type of small flat tracks, his win in April was his first in 20 races and only his second top-5.

However, unlike Kenseth and Edwards, he is very comfortable on the track and does have other wins there in the Truck and Nationwide series.

“I think because it’s a short track and when you go back to the roots of where we all grew up racing it was on the short tracks," said Harvick earlier this week. "Over the first several years we didn’t get a lot of the finishes that we probably deserved, whether it was from a mistake on the race track or just dumb luck. The last couple of years we’ve gotten good finishes and our cars have run fast. To finally get that check mark in the win box was important for us.”

Harvick also has an edge this week because of the car he's bringing. Not only is did the chassis slated to run this week win the April Martinsville race, but it also won at Richmond.

Brad Keselowski sits strong in third-place and is 6-to-1 to win the title and knows this is a place where he can make some ground up because of Edwards and Kenseth's past history at Martinsville.

“That was exactly how we needed to leave Talladega, with a strong finish," said Keselowski who debuts a new chassis this week. "We gained points on the leader and gained points on really all the Chase cars. I’m very proud of the effort that everyone on this Miller Lite Dodge team has put forth thus far. We’re still in contention and we have a damn good shot at winning this championship. This weekend’s race at Martinsville is one that I’ve been looking forward to for a while. There is no part or piece of equipment that can substitute for just getting a bunch of laps under your belt there. I’ve learned a lot in my three races, and I know Paul (Wolfe) has as well. This is a race where I think we can really pick up some points on Carl (Edwards) and Matt (Kenseth).”

While the leaders all play the points game, it's more than likely that we see the Martinsville cream rise to the top, no matter where they're at in points. Johnson, Gordon and Denny Hamlin have combined to win 14 of the last 17 Martinsville races. Prior to April's race, Hamlin had won three straight and has four wins overall running in his home state.

“I have raced at Martinsville more than I have raced at any other track when you consider total laps," Hamlin said when asked about why he's so strong at Martinsville. "Growing up in Virginia I had the chance to race here in some other series and all that track time definitely gave me a comfort level at Martinsville. That carried over to trucks and Nationwide Series and now to the Cup Series. I feel really confident at this track and I know we bring great cars – those things together usually lead to success. It’s also a lot of pressure because this is a race we circle as one where we expect to be really competitive.”

Jeff Gordon has sevens wins on the track and Johnson has six throughout their great careers and it looks like they'll be battling it out again this week.

As for the Championship, that may be the most exciting part of the race; watching how the two Roush drivers do against Harvick and Keselowski and the urgency they place on each position -- no matter where they're at --during the late stages.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (6/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (5/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)

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