Heading into the First Data 500, the 2018 NASCAR playoffs has been through a miserable stretch. Talladega was a four-car Stewart-Haas Racing freight train that gave us the fewest lead changes since 1973. Then, last Sunday a Kansas elimination race became notable for its unique ability to eliminate people from staying awake. The Round of 8 starts with some sluggish momentum in what’s been another difficult season for stock car racing. Pit road penalties? Pitiful passing? Zzzz.
But there’s no mess NASCAR makes Martinsville can’t make right.
Every year under this postseason format, this short track has delivered with standing ovation-style action and legendary moments that make it the version of NASCAR’s old reliable. You could have cars showing up with rust coming off the sides and Martinsville would still find a way to make it entertaining.
There was the fall of 2014, a thrilling final restart where Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew past Tony Stewart and earned what would be the final short track win of his career. (Note: short tracks for me will always be ovals under one mile). Earnhardt prevailed in a back-and-forth affair that had 24 lead changes, tied for the most in this fall event since 1980.
2015 will be remembered just as much for the wrecks; Matt Kenseth played bumper cars with Joey Loganoin a payback that altered Logano’s championship trajectory. That opened the door for a NASCAR favorite, Jeff Gordon, to win the final race of his stock car career. The crowd did give a several-minute standing ovation, Cal Ripken Jr. style, understanding the magnitude of the moment. It gave Gordon a free pass to a Homestead-Miami battle for the championship, one where he ultimately fell short.
Jimmie Johnson didn’t waste that opportunity in 2016. His victory, perhaps the tamest of the last five Martinsville fall races, earned him a spot in the season finale. Without it? He’d be on the outside looking in... and also stuck on six titles. It was this race that gave him an opportunity to capitalize on a wild ending weeks later for title number seven.
Finally, there’s last fall’s crazy ending. Kyle Busch was the winner but who remembers that? It was the Chase Elliott-Denny Hamlin contact which kept Elliott out of Victory Lane. A wild wreck on the last lap followed while Busch somehow beat Martin Truex Jr. to the line by inches.
It’s the type of can’t miss competition NASCAR was once known for every week. Longtime followers of the sport believe they can and will get there again someday.
But until then? There’s always Martinsville.
First Data 500
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ford
The Fusion may be the oldest NASCAR make but it’s running circles around the competition this year. The Round of 8 features five drivers running Fords, including the full four-car fleet of Stewart-Haas Racing. Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick join Team Penske’s Joey Logano as the Blue Ovals seek their first driver’s championship since 2004.
Harvick, especially looks like the favorite despite pit road problems derailing two potential victories in the Round of 12. He’s led 462 laps during the playoffs, including 408 during the last three races alone.
Who’s at the Back: William Byron
Rookie Byron blew his engine at Kansas, continuing a miserable freshman campaign. His eight DNFs are a NASCAR high for anyone who’s competed in every race and he hasn’t earned a top-15 finish since Watkins Glen. Change, in the form of seven-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus, is coming in February. But until then, expect him to limp to the finish despite winning an underwhelming Rookie of the Year battle with Bubba Wallace.
Ryan Newman will have a fresh face as his crew chief at Roush Fenway Racing next year. Scott Graves is leaving his spot running the No. 19 at Joe Gibbs Racing to become the head wrench at Newman’s No. 6 Ford. Graves was likely getting reassigned at JGR with Martin Truex Jr. bringing crew chief Cole Pearn along from Furniture Row Racing to JGR in 2019.
Sports Business Daily is reporting Comcast is no longer interested in purchasing a portion of NASCAR.The cable company was rumored to be interested this summer when the France family announced they were investigating a sale of the sport. Comcast’s withdrawal, if true, leaves any potential investment shrouded in mystery with NASCAR CEO Brian France continuing his leave of absence.
Jeb Burton will be making his first Cup Series start in over two years this weekend. The 2015 Rookie of the Year candidate will be running for Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car with sponsorship from JACOB Companies. Jeb, the son of Daytona 500 winner Ward, has been without a full-time ride since being released from BK Racing at the end of 2015.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The first year the Cup Series ran at Martinsville, making it the oldest track on the circuit.
Straight years Kevin Harvick has made the Round of 8. He’s the only one to do so under the current NASCAR playoff format.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch has underachieved thus far in the NASCAR playoffs. But his short track performances this year leave reason for optimism this weekend. Busch has run 2nd, 1st, 1st, 20th and 1st this season at tracks less than a mile in length. He’s also the defending champion of the Martinsville fall race, part of six consecutive top-5 finishes here. Put the No. 18 Toyota on your roster.
Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t won a short track race in his Cup Series career. Could Martinsville be the weekend? He has four straight top-5 qualifying efforts at this paperclip-shaped oval to go along with two straight top-five finishes. Truex could have easily won Richmond earlier in the playoffs, leading 163 laps there and has just four races left with Furniture Row Racing. He’ll be ready to rumble.
Alex Bowman may now be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. But he overachieved getting to the Round of 12 and still holds that momentum entering Martinsville. Seventh in the spring, it’s one of three top-10 finishes he earned on short tracks this season which has historically been a strength of the No. 88 team. Remember all those Martinsville finishes? Each one of them involved Hendrick Motorsports running up front. Bowman’s a good sleeper pick.
Erik Jones is another driver knocked out early from the playoffs who still has the speed to contend. He quietly earned three top-10 finishes in the Round of 12 and also has a fifth from Bristol earlier this year. Martinsville hasn’t been his best track, earning a best run of 12th in three starts, but the No. 20 Toyota is historically strong here. Expect him to run well.
Matt Kenseth is quietly wrapping up his NASCAR career with three more races running the No. 6 Ford. It hasn’t been the part-time comeback he was hoping for, considering Roush Fenway Racing’s struggles but Martinsville evens the playing field. Kenseth has three straight top-10 finishes here and will be a sneaky play considering the low salary that’s being offered in daily fantasy.
AJ Allmendinger has always run well at this short track. Driving the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet, he’s earned five top-10 finishes in his last six Martinsville starts. He’ll be motivated in his final start here in this car, his best shot left at a strong 2019 audition.
What Vegas Thinks*
Kyle Busch: 5/2
Clint Bowyer: 5/1
Brad Keselowski: 5/1
Martin Truex Jr.: 11/2
Chase Elliott: 6/1
LONGSHOT PICK: Jimmie Johnson 28/1
*Odds courtesy of vegasinsider.com
What I Think
This race is Kyle Busch’s to lose, I believe. I think he’ll hang onto it and deliver a statement win that clinches him a spot in the Homestead-Miami Championship 4.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.