Pretenders, contenders and potential winners as NASCAR's Chase hits Martinsville
The one thing the 2.66-mile behemoth that is Talladega Superspeedway and the half-mile paperclip that is Martinsville Speedway have in common is the reversal of fortunes each potentially delivers. After raising the ire of fans and the garage (Matt Kenseth, in particular) alike two weeks ago in Charlotte, Brad Keselowski faced virtually no other option but to pull a Jake Taylor in Major League and win the whole f___in’ thing at Talladega. Keselowski did just that — which was no small task — in rather dramatic fashion. While darting from lane to lane on the final lap may have appeared a bit manic, Keselowski worked the draft to perfection, stalling out cars and picking up lines as they encroached upon him to take the win.
The standings once again reset, the series moves onto the Eliminator Round where eight drivers will be whittled to four over the next three weeks.
Martinsville and Talladega are equalizers. Short tracks and superspeedways are places where smaller non-Chase contender teams can rise to the occasion and pull one off, and with that brief window of opportunity open, can lead to some collateral damage on the track. Last week I picked Jamie McMurray to win — which was looking pretty good as the No. 1 laid down a Spy Hunter-style oil slick much of the afternoon until a blown tire sent him spinning while leading the outside lane.
Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano notched wins in the first towo races of the last round, so the pressure was off at Talladega. They’re back on the clock again this weekend, though. Both drivers are decent at Martinsville, with Logano finishing fourth in April while Harvick won in 2011 and has 12 top 10s in 23 Cup starts. His respectable seventh-place effort in April was actually one of the few races this year that the No. 4 team wasn’t a contending factor. Look for that to change this weekend for the No. 4 team.
When Denny Hamlin and the Chase are brought up, it often conjures images of 2010, when fuel stop at Phoenix started a slow meltdown which saw the team hand title No. 5 to Jimmie Johnson. With the new bracket formula in place, things are looking up for the No. 11 bunch. Hamlin has totaled seven wins at the three tracks in the round, Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix; four have come in his home state of Virginia. In fact, Hamlin won three in a row in 2009-10, but finished 19th in the spring after starting on the front row. He won the pole for last year’s race and came home seventh, and given that Goodyear is bringing a tire similar to the one utilized last fall, things bode well for the Joe Gibbs Racing group.
“Pretenders” is probably not an apt subhead to refer to the proceeding drivers, since they’ve made it through the first two rounds of elimination and any could legitimately win the title at Homestead a month from now. Think of these drivers as those who have just a little-bit-less-of-a-chance to win at Homestead than their contemporaries outlined.
Last week, Keselowski mirrored the efforts of his Detroit Lions, who also engineered an improbable comeback. The Penske Hail Mary was his third career Cup win at Talladega and sixth of the season. Doubly impressive, Keselowski and teammate Logano have combined to win two-thirds of the Chase races so far — so it’s hard to bet against that. Keselowski finished in the top 10 at Martinsville in 2012 and 2013, but ended up 38th in the spring after getting into it with eventual race winner – and former No. 2 Penske driver – Kurt Busch. After the roller coaster of emotions the last two weeks, a smooth, drama-free top-10 run is what this team needs to focus on the next two tracks that are right in their wheelhouse.
Of the drivers still alive in the Chase, Ryan Newman registers as the biggest surprise. Winless on the season, his Richard Childress Racing team has been, at best, simply a top-10 car most of the season. A post-race blow up between Newman and Jimmie Johnson, in which the former complained of a horsepower disadvantage had many (myself included) believing that Newman would be a non-factor in the Chase.
Well color me wrong. Newman and the Luke Lambert-led Caterpillar crew transferred out of the first round with a top 10 at Dover and followed it with runs of eighth, sixth, seventh and third. In position to win at Talladega, Newman exercised discretion to advance and finds himself still in the hunt entering Martinsville. Newman has Cup wins at all three of this round’s stops and, while I don’t see him contending for a win this weekend, it’s not like a victory is actually needed. In fact, another top 5 would do just fine.
What to do if you’re a lame-duck driver on the verge of leaving both team and manufacturer? Go out and contend for a Cup, I suppose. Such is the case of Carl Edwards who, along with crew chief Jimmy Fennig, have declared they’re going to go for the win at Martinsville. It wasn’t until the August race at Michigan that the Roush Fenway Fords were relevant at downforce tracks, and they won their first race of the year at Bristol, one of only three true short tracks on the schedule along with Martinsville and Richmond.
The only issue here is Martinsville is not one of Edwards’ best venues. In 20 races, his best finish is a third in 2008, and the No. 99 team hasn’t had a top 10 here since the fall of 2011 during their last championship challenge. The Fastenal Ford was 13th back in April, so don’t expect much out of this group this weekend — but I would expect them to contend at Texas and Phoenix.
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of Talladega was that it was the first race in a week where Matt Kenseth didn’t attack somebody in the garage area. All kidding aside, it’s hard to believe the No. 20 team is still winless this year after notching seven victories a year ago. Irony of ironies was seeing Kenseth pushing Keselowski to the win after trying to judo hip-flip him between the Penske haulers at Charlotte two weeks ago. Kenseth qualified and finished sixth here in the spring; typical Matt Kenseth consistency and likely what you’ll see Sunday.
No need to be so fatalistic with the next bracket starting over. Instead, let’s take a look at two drivers eliminated last week who very well could (should?) be in the thick of things this weekend.
Let’s cut to the chase — pun intended. The one driver who should still be in the title hunt and will likely win it this weekend is out. Jimmie Johnson was in position to challenge for the win at Talladega but tried a hero move and sunk himself. There was a hit of sour grapes from the teamthat Kurt Busch — a quasi-teammate — didn’t go with him (however, if you think back to their fun-filled war of words and wrinkled fenders 2011, why on earth would they really believe that?). While “The King” and “The Intimidator” will still be the only seven-time champions for at least another year, Jimmie and Chad might just take home their ninth Grandfather clock this weekend. If you’re the gambling type, chew on these numbers for minute:
- — In 25 Martinsville starts, Johnson has eight wins and 22 top 10s. The three that weren’t top 10s: 11th, 12th and a 35th in his first race here in 2002.
- — Winner of every Martinsville Cup race but one from 2006-09.
- — Won the fall Martinsville race in 2012 and the spring race in 2013, both from the pole.
- — Led 296 of 500 laps in the spring before surrendering win to Kurt Busch with 10 laps to go.
If his teammate weren’t gunning for his fifth title and Johnson wasn’t only remaining HMS car in the Chase, I’d say load that clock up in the Lowe’s hauler immediately.
It was a shock to many that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wasn’t able to seal the deal at Talladega, a track where his name and that of his late father are synonymous. Martinsville is another track where Junior shines, although he’s never won there. Even during the lean years when he was moping, mumbling and generally running like garbage in one of Lance McGrew’s misguided missiles, he was a threat to win. Earnhardt has finished in the top 10 in over half of his 29 Martinsville starts. And while he led just 25 laps in the spring, he did steer it home a third-place finish helping to build early season momentum.
The title fight for the No. 88 might be over, but the season his legion of fans have been praying for lives on. Earnhardt is committed to trying to win a few more races as icing on a year that saw his rebirth to relevance — and helped bid a fond farewell to crew chief Steve Letarte.
Martinsville Winner: Jeff Gordon
The Drive for Five is once again alive. Check out Gordon’s Martinsville stats:
— Starts: 43
— Wins: 8
— Top 5s: 27
— Top 10s: 34
— DNF: 0
Those numbers are gaudy in any era, and downright Petty-esque if you ask me. Gordon comes into this race as the defending winner who should have also won here in 2012 (Clint Bowyer had other ideas). The tire will be similar to the one used last fall when Gordon capture his eighth victory here, which certainly plays to his favor.
With Junior, KK and JJ out of the title hunt, it’s all hands on deck to get the face of the Hendrick Motorsports’ franchise that fifth title that’s been 13 years in the making. While four of Gordon’s wins this year have happened on tracks 1.5-miles and longer, I’m quite confident that with how the 48 faired here back in the spring and knowing that the time is running out for that fifth championship, Alan Gustafson and the entire HMS group will be mounting a 24 offensive.
To pull it off, I think Gordon will have to go through Johnson, but it will be known well in advance which of the two takes priority this weekend.
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