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NASCAR's Sweet 16 matchups at Martinsville Speedway

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The sweetest 16 NASCAR matchups at Martinsville Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson vs. Jeff Gordon

This is the battle royal everyone is expecting — the proverbial No. 1 overall Florida Gators vs. the steeped-in-history UCLA Bruins. While “The King” still sits atop the Martinsville Throne, these two knights are on equal footing, set to duke it out yet again. Both have eight wins, though Jimmie Johnson has cleaned everybody’s (ahem) clock lately, scoring those victories in 24 starts to Jeff Gordon’s 42. “Big Daddy’s” 27 top 5s and 31 top 10s are beyond reproach in Martinsville (as are UCLA’s 11 titles in March) — as was his win at the last race held here in October. That said, Johnson won the two races prior, as both the 48 and 24 teams were set to finish it amongst themselves in the spring of 2012 before Clint Bowyer ruined the duel. These drivers and their respective teams were the class of the field in Fontana last weekend but came up short for varying reasons. If Johnson is Florida and Gordon UCLA in the South Region semifinal, we’re going with the upset: Gordon trips up Johnson and advances into the Chase.
Winner: Gordon

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Austin Dillon vs. Kyle Larson

This one is kind of lopsided, as Kyle Larson is making his first appearance at Martinsville, while Austin Dillon has at least competed there in the Truck series with finishes of 16th and seventh (37 laps led). Following his runner-up performance in last weekend’s Auto Club 400 — and first ever Nationwide Series win — Larson, your No. 10 seed Stanford Cardinal, definitely has momentum on his side. Keep in mind he also won Rockingham in a Truck the first time he ever raced there and gave Kyle Busch a run for his money at Bristol last year the first time he showed up. That said, Dillon, the Cinderella Daytona Flyers of the Sweet 16, has to be looking for a strong performance, as his Daytona 500 pole is quickly fading in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately memory of many within the racing community. Martinsville is tricky for sure, but hey, Danica Patrick nearly notched a top 10 in her maiden voyage here last spring. Larson has more pure talent, but we sniff upset this weekend. Give us Dillon … and Dayton.
Winner: Dillon

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. Tony Stewart

Representing the South Region is Tony Stewart as Michigan State — a yearly powerhouse that has his share of banners — and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Virginia of 2014, who has come seemingly out of nowhere to snag a No. 1 seed. Stewart is on the mend from a badly broken leg suffered last August and Earnhardt, on the heels of a winless 2012, is fast out of the gate this year. Stewart has three wins in Martinsville, the last of which came in 2011 when he held off Jimmie Johnson for the win en route to his third championship and first as an owner/driver. Junior has fared well here, too. In the last seven races he’s scored the third most points and finished eighth in the fall. Stewart finished 17th in the spring Martinsville event last season (he missed the fall race) and enters the weekend with fourth- and fifth-place runs in his last two races. Meanwhile, Earnhardt’s team stumbled a bit with tire issues at Auto Club Speedway and finishing a lap down at Bristol. Give the nod to Stewart for this one (we’re putting you on high alert too, UVa) as the No. 14 team and SHR as a whole continues to build momentum as the season picks up the pace.
Winner: Stewart

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Matt Kenseth vs Kyle Busch

The Iowa State-UConn game — as Busch, like ISU, is a red-hot commodity at the moment and Kenseth is the traditional heavyweight. The latter has yet to win on the half-mile, but does have four top 5s — the most recent being a runner-up finish to Jeff Gordon by just .605 seconds last year. Kenseth became a father for the fourth time this week, so you know he’ll have some extra motivation to cap off the week in style. Meanwhile, Busch is coming into the weekend on a high note, as well, after snagging a win at Fontana and pretty much locking himself in the Chase. With the pressure off, he’s free to go for it and not sweat points. Busch ended up 15th here in the fall after leading 56 laps in the spring. Can he keep up the momentum? His record at Martinsville is strong (eight top 5s, nine top 10s), and there’s a number of races here he probably should’ve won but did not. Yes, Busch could be the season’s first two-time winner, but we think “Cool Hand Kenseth” — like the Huskies — pulls the upset.
Winner: Kenseth

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Kevin Harvick vs. Denny Hamlin

This is an interesting matchup for a number of reasons: Denny Hamlin’s virtual homecourt — much like San Diego State’s in the West Regional playing out in Anaheim — a week after having to pull out of the race at Fontana with blurred vision and sinus issues (or metal in his eye … whatever). Kevin Harvick, like the mighty No. 1 seed Arizona Wildcats, roll in with a team that has been astonishingly fast at every track this season — though their 25th place points position would belay this. Harvick last won here in 2011 and finished sixth in the fall. Hamlin has four wins on the paperclip 16 starts — and maybe more impressive, 13 top 10s. He missed the spring race here last year with a broken back, though Mark Martin drove his No. 11 to a ninth-place finish despite a late-race pit miscue. Harvick and Sean Miller, err, crew chief Rodney Childers, have taken advantage of their Phoenix win (again, the Arizona connection) being a bit aggressive in recent weeks on the setup front. I think they dial it back a bit this week, but Hamlin, like upstart SDSU, will be out to prove a point, much as he did at Martinsville in 2010 when he swept the races after early-season knee surgery.
Winner: Hamlin

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Kurt Busch vs. Kasey Kahne

Two top talents in the sport who have gotten off to an absolutely miserable start to 2014. Kurt Busch, seemingly a No. 2 seed-driver (think Wisconsin in the West Region) in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing — or in his case, Haas-Stewart Racing — has had fast cars but been the recipient of some awful luck. From a late-race wreck at Daytona, a blown engine at Phoenix, and hitting the wall instead of his brother at Bristol, Busch had a peak at the win last week at Auto Club Speedway until his brother’s four tires (to his two) proved to be his undoing. Like Busch, Kasey Kahne, your No. 6 seed Baylor-type, has certainly been competitive, but only in streaks. He was penalized at Daytona for (gasp!) attempting to not get wrecked by a sliding Michael Annett and mechanical issues early on in Fontana spoiled his day. We feel two eighth-place runs this year and a fourth at Martinsville last April will be enough to see Baylor pull past Wisconsin.
Winner: Kasey Kahne

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Brad Keselowski vs. Joey Logano

A NASCAR version of an in-state rivalry here. Think Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Region of Doom, as these two Ford teams are in their own zip code when it comes to going to bat for the Blue Oval Brigade in 2014. Sure, Carl Edwards led Ford’s effort in Bristol — where the manufacturer took four of the top-5 spots — but throw them on a downforce track and it’s clear that Penske has the advantage. So who has the edge at Martinsville? Neither has a win here, though Keselowski about had it in the bag in 2012 until a late-race caution — and he managed a sixth and a fourth in 2013. Joey Logano’s best finish was been a second back in 2010, however his last four Martinsville starts have resulted in finishes of 23rd, 18th, 23rd and 14th. Look for the Blue Deuce to back off on the aggressive calls this week and play it closer to the vest. Take who you will in Indianapolis, but the Big Blue wins out in Martinsville.
Winner: Keselowski

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Ryan Newman vs. Clint Bowyer

Ryan Newman is like the No. 11 seed Tennessee Vols, a surprise Sweet 16 team in the Midwest Region; Bowyer serves as the Michigan Wolverines, a recent championship-caliber contender. The last time these two squared off at the paperclip oval, it ended in Newman’s favor. Bowyer attempted a pass on both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson — reminiscent of a move last seen in NASCAR Thunder 2003 for PS2. After Bowyer made a mess of Turn 1, Newman cruised home to his only win of the 2012 season. Bowyer has yet to win at Martinsville, but in 16 starts he has 10 top 10s and four top 5s — and last year finished second and third in the Gen6 car to Newman’s 31st- and 38th-place stinkers. Assuming no last-ditch antics (or last lap tire failures), Bowyer, like the Wolverines, wins this matchup.
Winner: Bowyer

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