Thursday, October 25, 2012

Martinsville Preview: 2012 Tums Fast Relief 500

Why not Ryan Newman again? (Getty)
By Micah Roberts

We’ve seen the season sweep at Martinsville four times in the past decade that also includes three straight wins at one juncture by Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Drivers that are hot at Martinsville seem to stay hot for two or three years in a row, while also maintaining a strong average finish.

In the case of Denny Hamlin, this weeks 7-to-2 favorite, the native Virginian has won at Martinsville four times and has a career average of 6.4 over his 14 starts.

Johnson has been even better, maintaining a 5.8 average finish with six wins over his career. In 14 of his past 18 starts, he’s finished fifth or better.

However, in both Hamlin and Johnson’s recent races, they have tailed off from their pure dominance. In Johnson’s past three starts, he’s had two of his worst finishes in the last decade. 11th and 12th-place is nothing to be down about, but it sure isn’t close to the bar Johnson raised over the years. The 12th-place finish came in the spring race this year.

Hamlin only has one top-5 finish over his past three Martinsville starts. It’s nothing to be alarmed about, but there is a reason to suggest other contenders might be worth a shot here than in past years, especially when considering Hamlin has that mounting pressure to have to run well this weekend, maybe even win, since he‘s down 20-points in the Chase with four races to go.

I felt I had a good read on Hamlin’s emotions last week as he pulled the reins back on his car at Kansas for fear of the new surface punting his car like it did several others. I had the feeling that if this wasn’t at such a critical juncture of the season, Hamlin had a car good enough to finish in the top-5. Rather than chance it, he laid up and took the safe route. It was probably the smart move, but when you see Johnson with a ninth-place finish in a busted up car -- driving the wheels off it the last half of the race, it makes you wonder about Hamlin’s psyche.

Now, with four races to go, Hamlin almost has to win this race and I don’t know if he’s up for that pressure based on him reliving memories of 2010 failures down the stretch. He won at Martinsville that year -- while leading in points, but faltered at Phoenix and Homestead. There isn’t a better track on the circuit for him to make a statement, but at the same time, I still see him being overly cautious like Kansas, which doesn’t equate to wins.

So I’ve talked myself into throwing out the two favorites, usually a bad thing at Martinsville since only four different drivers have combined to win 16 of the past 19 races, but it's in the past three races there that has me believing we could seeing something different, while staying the same.

That may not make much sense, so let me clarify by referring back to the point about drivers winning in bunches over a short period of time, including the four sweeps.

Stewart-Haas drivers have won the past two Martinsville races. Tony Stewart won last fall en route to winning the Championship and Ryan Newman won in the spring. Both cars should have equally good set-ups for this race and their odds make them attractive. Stewart is 8-to-1 and will be using the same car that led 118 laps to a third-place finish at Richmond in the spring. Newman will be using a chassis that finished fifth at Phoenix last year, along with two eight-place finishes at Richmond. Newman, at 25-to-1 odds, is very attractive, and could make it five sweeps in a decade.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (4/1)
3) #39 Ryan Newman (25/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/2)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)

Video: Roberts Talking Martinsville

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