Saturday, October 25, 2014

Final Martinsville Practice Notes & Top-Rated Drivers: Gordon is looking better than ever

Gordon looks ready for another Martinsville win
There’s nothing better than seeing a master at their craft go to work, whether it’s Michelangelo putting the finishing touches on a sculpture, Peyton Manning executing a drive with precision on the football field, or Michael Jordan dominating in a playoff game. When I watched Jeff Gordon during practices on Friday and Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, I couldn’t help but compare his excellence on the half-mile track with some all-time greats in their fields. He truly is the Master of Martinsville.

Gordon was only fastest in single-lap times during the first session Friday, but when stringing together average speeds over any 10-consecutive lap stretch, Gordon was faster than everyone in all three sessions, which easily makes him the driver to beat in Sunday’s Goody’s 500.

Gordon was already considered the driver to beat at 4-to-1 odds because of all his past domination at Martinsville, where he's won eight times. The guy has an amazing 27 top-five finishes over his 43 career starts, and now he has the dangling championship carrot in front of him. If he wins this race, he’ll get an invite to the championship round at Homestead in four weeks. Between having the skills, the car, and knowing what’s at stake for this race, Gordon is in a pretty good situation to win his fifth Sprint Cup title and first since 2001.

Jimmie Johnson is the main reason why Gordon hasn’t yet passed Richard Petty’s all-time Martinsville record of 15 wins. Despite being teammates and Johnson being eliminated from the Chase, he’ll do all he can to keep Gordon with eight career Martinsville wins and grab his own ninth victory. Over Johnson’s past 20 Martinsville starts, he’s had eight wins and an insane 3.7 average finish.

During practices, Johnson was just a notch below Gordon, but he did have the fastest lap in Saturday’s early session. During happy hour he had the second-best 10-consecutive lap average. He’s going to be a thorn in Gordon’s side all day, and even though Gordon owns half of Johnson’s No. 48 car, don’t expect to see much teamwork Sunday.

In terms of impressiveness, Brad Keselowski was right behind Gordon and Johnson, trailing only that dynamic duo in average speeds. Keselowski has never won at Martinsville and this is supposed to be a track where a driver like Gordon has a huge edge, but the No. 2 car is dialed in pretty well to the point where if there is a late slip-up by Gordon or Johnson, it will be right there to take advantage. Great things are expected out of this team at Texas and Phoenix over the next two weeks, but Keselowski's capable of getting his invite to Homestead on Sunday.

There were high expectations for Denny Hamlin this week because of Martinsville being in his home state of Virginia and his four previous wins on the track, but he didn’t look as strong in the final practices as he did on Friday while set up in qualifying trim. He was middle of the pack in average speeds. When he was dominating on the track, he was always up there with the top average speeds. In fact, both his teammates, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, looked better in practice. Hamlin needs this race bad with hopes of competing for his first championship at Homestead. Look for Hamlin to scratch and claw for a decent finish, but he’ll need Johnson and Gordon to have some trouble in order to win – and that never happens to either of them at Martinsville.

The best long shot value is Jamie McMurray, who was right up there with Gordon, Johnson and Keselowski as the stars of Saturday‘s practices. He‘ll start from the pole, which will allow him to lead several laps early on, and he should be able to maintain a good pace based on his solid average speeds. Just over 27 percent of all Martinsville winners have come from the front row, which kind of shows how important start position is on the track. On that same token, Harvick has a poor starting position, and despite having a very good car, he’s got a major uphill climb.

Read More Here...Final Driver Ratings

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