Halloween weekend in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series this year gives us a special treat: racing on the circuit’s oldest track, Martinsville Speedway, for the Xfinity 500. This Virginia treasure has played host to some of the best playoff races since the sport moved to a postseason format in 2004 and this Sunday should be no exception.
The paperclip-shaped oval is just .526 miles in length, the smallest track on the circuit. But don’t be tricked; it's large on action and close quarters typically mean 500 laps of close racing. Bumper cars could ensue as the pressure's on for seven drivers still looking to secure three spots in the Championship 4.
Joey Logano is the only driver who can rest easy; he's got a place assured in the finale after winning at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago. Yet Logano also knows how Martinsville could easily derail a postseason bid. Back in 2015, he spun out Matt Kenseth in the closing laps to win another race at Kansas. Kenseth's response? To wait patiently as a lapped car at Martinsville before torpedoing Logano into the outside wall.
Kenseth wound up paying the price for that one, serving a two-race suspension for his actions. But Logano also faced the consequences, failing to advance into the next round of the playoffs.
Now, with Martinsville the penultimate race of the NASCAR schedule, who will let out a year's worth of frustration with a little short-track contact? The seven other drivers in title contention are sure sorting through their Rolodex to make sure those I'm sorrys are dotted and apologies are crossed off the list. Slower speeds here combined with inevitable contact make payback the rule here, not the exception.
Chase Elliott roughed up Logano in his bid for a Bristol victory back in May. Is Martinsville the place Logano gets revenge... and prevents a maiden Championship 4 appearance for the sport's Most Popular Driver? Former Martinsville winner Brad Keselowski, meanwhile, has spent a career feuding with a suddenly red-hot Kyle Busch. Will Busch, out of title contention, ram into Keselowski to settle old scores if a second straight Cup victory is on the line? Martin Truex Jr., meanwhile, got knocked out of the way by Logano at Martinsville, a move that earned Logano the 2018 Cup championship. Do you think Truex will forget about that if the duo run 1-2 in the closing laps?
Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch are not immune from payback, either. All it takes is one ill-timed moment at a place where you often need to muscle the guy out of the way to make a pass. Tempers flare, someone hits you back and all of a sudden, your championship hopes sit sideways in the middle of turn 4.
Martinsville mayhem seems likelier this year since the last three races have been mediocre by their standards. Two of them have produced just three lead changes and the last one produced a margin of victory that was nearly five seconds. In Martinsville terms, that's equivalent to five laps as Truex trounced the field down the stretch.
Add in one last desperation effort by Jimmie Johnson to grab a win in his farewell season and the plot thickens even more. Johnson has nine career victories here, more than any other track outside Dover International Speedway. Could a 10th grandfather clock be the feel-good moment in an otherwise disappointing year?
How about Clint Bowyer, also retiring after the season? One of his last victories came at this track in 2018. Or will one of the other championship-contending drivers come out on top? It’s a true Martinsville mystery, a wild way to send the Cup Series into its final race of 2020.
Date: Sunday, Nov. 1
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Ridgeway, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Busch
It took four days and 52 laps of "practice" on Sunday before the Texas Motor Speedway race finished up. But it was finally the right mix for Busch to put a year’s worth of demons aside and win his first race in a mediocre 2020 season.
It’s the 16th straight year Busch has won at least one Cup race, two short of the all-time record held by Richard Petty (1960-77). During a time where everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong for Busch, he was on pins and needles the final 50 laps while overcoming a rubber fire in the cockpit of his car.
"t was much needed and very much a lot of relief, as well," Busch said of the victory. "For me having the opportunity to continue that win streak was certainly high on our list, and when you fall out of the playoffs and you've got nothing else to race for, that's all you have to race for is trophies and getting wins for the rest of this year... it feels really good to be able to come to Texas and score that win."
Who's at the Back: Denny Hamlin
Two top-five finishes in the first eight playoff races? That’s not the path expected for Hamlin after entering the postseason a co-title favorite with Kevin Harvick. Hamlin does have a victory during that stretch, by inches at Talladega Superspeedway in October, yet has struggled at types of tracks (1.5-mile ovals) that were his strength earlier in 2020.
However, Hamlin remains in position to make the Championship 4 with a good run at Martinsville. Guess who else limped through the playoffs last season? Kyle Busch had two top-five finishes in the first eight races. He rebounded to second at Phoenix Raceway this weekend last year... then won the title the following Sunday with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In a move expected for weeks, Kyle Larson was officially named to Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet in 2021. Sponsorship was not immediately announced but Hendrick remains bullish he'll find some for a driver he initially wanted replacing Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car. Larson's firing from Chip Ganassi Racing over a racial slur complicated that plan; in the end, though both sides wound up working out a deal for him to occupy the soon-to-be re-numbered No. 88.
William Byron will have a new crew chief in 2021. Rudy Fugle will come over from NASCAR's Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series to run the No. 24 Chevrolet in place of the soon-to-be-promoted Chad Knaus. Fugle has had great success with Kyle Busch Motorsports in that division, winning 28 races there over the past decade. While there, Byron proved to be his best student, winning seven times in 2015 while falling just short of a series title.
Bubba Wallace also has a new head wrench for his new team, 23XI Racing, in 2021. Mike Wheeler will move from the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing to join the new organization headed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan. The team also announced Friday they'll run Toyotas for the coming season with technical support provided by Joe Gibbs Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Consecutive days the Texas race was delayed by rain. It's the first time in the modern era a Cup race has had that many consecutive postponements.
Finishing position for Christopher Bell in Leavine Family Racing's home state of Texas. It was the second-best career finish for this team, closing at the end of 2020, in 254 career Cup starts.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Martin Truex Jr. has won the last two races at Martinsville. A third straight victory here would launch him into the Championship 4 for the fifth time in the last six years. He'll be an expensive pick for any roster but he's also hard to bet against, leading 596 laps here the past two races while not finishing outside the top 10 at this track since 2017.
Kyle Busch will potentially be under the radar entering this weekend with the Championship 4 taking center stage. He shouldn't be. Busch was 14th and 19th the last two starts here, lowering his price, but had eight consecutive top-5 finishes before that, including two wins. We've seen Busch get hot before after breaking a slump and hitting victory lane. Don't lose out.
Jimmie Johnson has been on this list far too often this year and disappointed far too much. However, at Martinsville, a track he's won at nine times, Johnson has visions of one last run up front. 10th in June, he led 70 laps and won a stage before fading in the final portion of the event. Everyone remembers Johnson's former Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon, winning the final race of his career at Martinsville back in 2015. Can lightning strike twice?
William Byron has had a forgettable playoff run after sneaking into the first round with a victory at Daytona International Speedway back in August. Don't forget about him here, though considering runs of second and eighth his last two times out. It's a cheap way to fill out the lower portion of your roster with near-guaranteed top-10 success.
Bubba Wallace hopes to end his tenure with Richard Petty Motorsports on a high note. Every time out at Martinsville, he's gotten better with runs of 17th, 13th and 11th since the start of 2019. In a race where late-race wrecks and attrition could be high, look for Wallace to sneak into the top 15 at a place where driver skill makes a real difference.
Michael McDowell was a surprising 14th at Martinsville back in June. He's worth a flyer with a Front Row Motorsports team that's finished in the top 10 at this track with David Ragan. In fact, Ragan ran 11th with FRM in the fall race held here last year.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. leads the way with 13/4 odds at Martinsville according to vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are next with 11/2 odds. Then Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano sit at 17/2. See the unpredictability here?
If you believe in the Jimmie Johnson/Jeff Gordon theory above, he's sitting 33/1. That’s your best longshot pick.
What I Think
I'll say Chase Elliott breaks through here for his first-ever Championship 4 appearance and the first for Hendrick Motorsports since 2016. However, seven or eight different names in this space wouldn't surprise me. Martinsville remains a place where anything can happen... and often does.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)