Joey Logano vs. Matt Kenseth? Twenty-one lead changes at a short track? Jeff Gordon taking the win in his final season?
All of that drama made last year’s Martinsville race the best in NASCAR’s Chase, hands down. And the best part for fans is that all those scenarios are primed to happen again. Both Logano and Kenseth have advanced to the Round of 8; their battle Sunday will once again have title implications. Gordon also will be right in the mix, his final start filling in for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in what will likely be his final race in the Cup Series, period.
It’s the perfect storm for NASCAR in the midst of a Chase that’s failed to provide high-level storylines. (When your big headline after Talladega is “Three title contenders run intentionally at the back of the field all day,” you know you have a problem). Races have been down anywhere from 10 to more than 20 percent on television; none of NASCAR’s first-time Chase participants advanced to the Round of 8.
In the past, that’s when this legendary short track, the oldest one on NASCAR’s schedule has come through and saved the sport with some momentum to take into its final month. If they can’t have a good race at Martinsville, pundits say, you can’t have a good one anywhere.
So expect a high-energy, high-drama affair on Sunday. Take some risks for your fantasy team, set your roster accordingly and most importantly... tune in. If there’s only one race you watch over NASCAR’s 10-race playoff, tuning out the NFL for the afternoon this would be the one.
2016 Goody’s Fast Relief 500
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
It seems counterintuitive considering three of JGR’s four Toyotas spent Talladega running by themselves, at the back of the lead draft and fully out of contention. But the team’s engineers, mastering the math problem of moving on in the Chase, also kept their drivers out of harm’s way.
Once the fourth JGR driver, Denny Hamlin, crossed the finish line third at Talladega the team had fully achieved their goal of advancing. Four of the eight drivers that remain in the Chase are from this organization; the team’s hope of having a final four made up of only themselves remains very much alive. Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have won 11 times this year, including the Daytona 500, and remain the overall favorites on paper despite not winning once during the first six races of this playoff.
Who’s at the Back: Martin Truex Jr.
What a horrible time for mechanical failure. Truex’s tough luck at Talladega, caused by his first blown engine since the 2014 Daytona 500, killed off his championship chances. Finishing dead last, he’s now on the outside of the title hunt looking in despite a career year that includes four victories and a series-high 1,596 laps led.
NASCAR announced it would limit participation from drivers in its top series looking to compete in its minor league divisions beginning in 2017. Any Cup driver with five or more years of full-time experience will be limited to 10 starts in the XFINITY Series and seven starts in the Camping World Truck Series under the new rules. Those drivers would also be banned from participating in those series’ postseason Chases (seven races) along with XFINITY’s four Dash4Cash events.
Kyle Busch will be the Cup driver affected most by the new XFINITY rules. He’s got nine wins already in the series this season over 16 starts, including the most recent Chase race at Kansas. Joey Logano, who won the XFINITY Charlotte race this fall, also will be forced to scale back along with Team Penske cohort Brad Keselowski.
Reports persist JTG Daugherty Racing is looking into adding a second car next season with Greg Biffle behind the wheel. Co-owner Tad Geschicker admitted this week “it’s a possibility” they’ll expand while Biffle has been rumored to be unhappy at Roush Fenway Racing. The veteran has just one top-5 finish this season, a career low, and has gone two straight years without making the Chase.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight years the Chase race at Talladega has had a green-white-checkered finish or a caution flag on the final lap.
Career laps led by Jeff Gordon, expected to make his final start in a Sprint Cup car this Sunday at Martinsville.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch flat out destroyed the field back in the spring race at Martinsville, leading 352 laps including the final 174. The reigning Cup champ has yet to win during this postseason and has quietly advanced to this point; all eyes are on their team to cash in this weekend. He’s a “must-start” for your roster.
Jimmie Johnson, advancing to the Chase Round of 8 for the first time, looks to this race as an opportunity to win, too. He’s got eight career victories here and rebounded to ninth in the spring after a series of tough performances in recent years. With the way the No. 48 has gained momentum throughout this playoff it’s hard to count them out for anything worse than a top-10 finish.
Tony Stewart has had a quiet Chase, fading into the background with retirement near. But you may want to take a chance on him at Martinsville. Tenth in the spring, Stewart is at his best on short tracks and he owns three wins and a career average finish of 13.7 here. With no 2017 to worry about and no championship, expect Smoke to be aggressive, like the old days and push hard for a top-10 run.
All signs point to AJ Allmendinger having another strong run at Martinsville. Gordon’s toughest competition during the closing laps last fall, the ‘Dinger was second at Martinsville this spring and owns four top-11 finishes in his last five starts at the track. Add in a front-row starting spot and the No. 47 Chevrolet should run up front through most of Sunday’s race.
It might be worth taking a flyer on David Ragan, too. The BK Racing driver starts 12th and has a solid track record here, earning two top-10 finishes since the beginning of 2014. One of them came with another underdog team, Front Row Motorsports, proving he can still wrestle underfunded equipment right to the front.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads all drivers according to vegasinsider.com with 4/1 odds to take the Martinsville race. Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are right behind him at 5/1.
What I Think
What a storybook ending it would be for Jeff Gordon to reach victory lane in his final Cup start. I think he’ll come close but, in the end, it’s Busch’s race to lose after the way the No. 18 Toyota dominated the proceedings back in the spring.
— 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.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)