Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2012 Martinsville Goody's Fast Relief 500 Preview

By Micah Roberts

Martinsville is now is alone with short track racing 'the way it oughta be'
In the last couple of decades, Martinsville has taken a back seat to Bristol because the higher banked Bristol produced more excitement. Although each track is essentially the same half-mile in distance, drivers at Martinsville go nearly 30 mph slower.

But over the last two seasons a massive change of opinion has shifted with fans all over the country where Martinsville has become the most attractive brand of short track racing in NASCAR.

The main culprit in the perception shift is action, with drivers getting angry with one another and Bristol doesn’t have that anymore ever since they changed the surface in 2007 making it a multi-grooved track.

At Martinsville, the fastest way around the track is on the bottom and drivers fight like hungry wolves to get there, and stay there. If a slower driver doesn’t want to do the gentlemanly thing and let the faster one pass, NASCAR justice occurs in an instant with the slower driver getting bumped out of the way against his wishes. This is where the action happens and the fun begins, and it‘s something that only Martinsville provides making it the most unique track on the circuit.

“It’s still that old short-track feel," Tony Stewart said about Martinsville. "That’s what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year and it’s the only place that races like this. We’ve got two half-mile tracks that we race on. This one’s quite a bit different than Bristol, and that’s what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It’s racing the way we all grew up racing.”

Over the last decade, only a select few drivers have been able to master it. The combination of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have won 14 of the last 18 Martinsville races. Just by playing the odds, it’s likely that one of them will win again this week.

However, we do have last season to account for where neither of the Martinsville Big-3 won. Kevin Harvick won for the first time in the spring and Tony Stewart won in the fall during his incredible Chase run. For Harvick, he’s on a run of finishing fourth or better in his last three starts there. For Stewart, it broke a string of poor finishes there and gave him his third career win on the track.

The driver to key on this week out of all of them has to be Denny Hamlin. It would take a lot of work for the native Virginian not to win this race because of how dialed in this team is. He’s got a Phoenix win under his belt already this season and probably could have won at California last week had it not been for rain because he had the best car on the track.

Beyond all of Hamlin’s past exploits at Martinsville that has seen him capture four wins with an average finish of 6.5, we also have to give him the nod because of new crew chief Darian Grubb. Not only did Grubb set-up cars for Jimmie Johnson’s six Martinsville wins, but he also helped Stewart get there last year. The combination of Hamlin’s natural skills here and Grubb setting up the car will be a formidable opponent for every driver on Sunday.

The one outsider who could break his winless streak of 134 races is Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he's excited about racing there this week.

“I look forward going to Martinsville," Earnhardt Jr. said earlier this week. "I always have a lot of fun there. I think everybody really enjoys running there. It’s a pretty fun track. We’ve had some good success there. I’m hoping to have a good race like we did last year and maybe have an opportunity to try to be in the battle for the win.”

Junior has finished seventh or better in seven of his last 10 Martinsville starts that includes two runner-up finishes, including this race last year. He’s never won at Martinsville, but he’s been running very well this season which should give the team some momentum coming in.

This race ultimately runs through Hamlin and if looking to play anyone else, it’s with the hope that something either happens to Hamlin’s car or the pit crew makes an error late in the race. There is just too much in Hamlin’s favor this week.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
2) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (14/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (10/1)

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