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NASCAR Martinsville Preview

by Dave Grayson
Friday, October 28, 2011

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Always a decent crowd at Martinsville
Any NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, still in contention for the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, will tell you that the seven day gap between race number six and seven on the Chase schedule has been hectic. If we thought last weekend's race at the Talladega Super Speedway was a possible Chase maker or breaker, then wait until you see what these drivers are going to have to deal with this Sunday.

It's the second seasonal appearance at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. It's 43 NASCAR stock cars stacked up on a half mile race track with a surface that is half asphalt and half concrete. It's a racing environment that calls for a unique blend of driver patience and aggression while, at the same time, saving the brakes on the car. It's an energy draining 500 miles on a short track where the laps go by very quickly. There's no laying in the back of the pack watching and waiting for the perfect time to mount a winning charge to the front. It's going to be go time the moment the initial green flag waves in the air.

Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500 is a major part of NASCAR's version of "the final four." It's the first of four final races before we learn who the 2011 champion will be. The race could easily have a huge impact on the Chase standings by the time it's over. Just like Talladega last weekend, Sunday in Martinsville could turn out to become a Chase maker or a Chase breaker.

THE LAS VEGAS BREAKDOWN

For decades now the Martinsville Speedway has observed a tradition of presenting their race winners with a beautiful, custom, grandfather clock. To determine which driver is going to take home the time of day in grand style, or who's going to be swallowing Tums after the race, we once again turn to the professionals from the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), who has crunched some very interesting numbers for us this week.

Topping the WSE rankings this week are Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick at 6 to 1 odds. Johnson is seventh in the Chase standings, 50 points away from first, and it appears that his crash at the Charlotte race combined with a poor finish at Talladega last week has put his drive for a sixth, consecutive, title in jeopardy. Making up 50 points in four races is not impossible but it's not likely either. Johnson needs a major launching pad for his championship hopes and Martinsville may be the track. His numbers are terrific there and include six wins, 13 top five finishes, 17 top ten finishes and an outstanding average finish ratio, (AFR), of 5.6. This is the guy to watch next Sunday and to bet your money on.

Denny Hamlin, 11th in the Chase 84 points away, has pretty much endured a very frustrating season. Despite his Chase numbers, he still deserves his 6 to 1 rating from the WSE. He's a four time winner at Martinsville, including winning last year's race from the pole. He also has eight top fives, ten top tens and a very healthy AFR of 6.6 at a facility he calls his home track. There's some added momentum for Hamlin this Sunday: he's only two points from tenth in the Chase standings. The top ten drivers get stage and television time at the awards banquet in Las Vegas. It's a golden opportunity to acknowledge their sponsors during a high profile evening.

Kevin Harvick completes the 6 to 1 trio this week. After getting caught up in a multi car crash at Talladega, Harvick fell from second to fifth in the standings, 26 points away. Harvick got his first win at Martinsville last April, but it's not one of his stronger tracks. He only has two top fives and a 16.5 AFR there. However, this will be a driver on a mission this Sunday and someone worthy of a wager consideration.

Ranked at 7 to 1 by the WSE are drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. A surprise 27th place finish at Talladega has left Gordon tenth in the Chase standings and 82 points away. His drive for five championship run is now over but that doesn't mean he can't play the role of Chase spoiler and elevate his status. Gordon has outstanding numbers at Martinsville and leads the modern era drivers with seven wins there. He also has 24 top fives, 30 top tens and a great AFR of 7.0. At a facility where track position is very important, Gordon has won the pole position at Martinsville seven times. He's definitely worthy of your consideration.

Tony Stewart is a two time Martinsville winner with eight top fives and a 13.9 AFR. He will also be a man on a mission this Sunday. He's currently fourth in the Chase standings, 19 points away, and he knows very well that it's go time if he's going to win his next NASCAR title this year.

Kyle Busch is ranked 8 to 1 by the WSE for the Martinsville race. That's likely because he capable of winning any race he enters. Busch is sixth in the Chase standings, 40 points away, and he knows it's go time if he's going to be involved in a final championship profile. The problem here is the fact that his Martinsville numbers doesn't support the theory. He's still looking for his first win there and has a 15.6 AFR. There's also the matter of the so called "Chase jinx". Busch has made 46 starts, during NASCAR's Chase format, and is still looking for that first win. However, at 8 to 1, he may make an interesting long shot wager. That jinx has to end sooner or later.

At 16 to 1 odds are drivers Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. Bowyer will be working from the momentum of last weekend's last lap win at Talladega. But his Martinsville numbers aren't that strong. He's winless there with only one top five and a 14.7 AFR. However things could get a little interesting if Bowyer lends some form of help to Chase contender, and team mate, Kevin Harvick. This will be, of course, entirely up to him because, as we all learned this past Tuesday, "there are no team orders in NASCAR."

Series points leader Carl Edwards took a rather conservative approach to last weekend's race at Talladega and went home with his lead padded to 14 points. He may want to consider that approach again at Martinsville. He's winless there, with one top five, and a 16.9 AFR.

The WSE has drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brad Keselowski ranked at 18 to 1 this week. Earnhardt's Chase status, ninth at 74 points away, may be over and done with but, if his car is handling good, he could become a possible race spoiler. He missed a win at Martinsville last April by just one lap.

Meanwhile Brad Keselowski just continues to amaze everyone. Not only did he surprise us by making the Chase line up, via the wild card system, he continues to slowly climb up the Chase ladder where he's now third and 18 points away. He has one top ten at Martinsville and a 13.7 AFR but don't be too surprised if you see him near the front on Sunday.

Looking at the WSE's lower tier for the Martinsville race Ryan Newman, 12th in the Chase standings and 88 points away, is rated at 25 to 1. Fellow Chase member Kurt Busch, eighth and 52 points away, is rated at 28 to 1. He's a former Martinsville winner but also has a 21.1 AFR.

Jeff Burton is ranked at 30 to 1 and his coming off of a strong, second place, performance at Talladega last Sunday. Matt Kenseth, second in the Chase and 14 away, is also ranked at 30 to 1. Kasey Kahne, and Red Bull Racing, comes in at 35 to 1. At 40 to 1 you will find the quartet of Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray while Martin Truex Jr closes out the WSE rankings this week at 45 to 1. Any driver not listed has been ranked at 15 to 1 odds.

Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these posted numbers should be used for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their events.

(Now that was team orders !)

THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Tums Fast Relief 500 is 500 laps/263 miles around the Martinsville Speedway's 0.526 mile asphalt and concrete covered oval.

The race has 46 entries vying for the 43 starting positions. 11 of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning they are not guaranteed a starting berth in the race because they are currently outside of NASCAR's top 35 in owner's points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speed to make the race.

Maintaining a position in NASCAR's top 35 in owner's point could turn out to be an interesting issue this Sunday. Travis Kvapil, driver of the Front Row Motorsports Ford, currently holds down the coveted 35th position. However it's only a two point advantage of the #71 Chevrolet fielded by TRG: The Racer's Group. TRG announced earlier this week that driver Hermie Sadler, who has a lot of experience at Martinsville, will be driving their car on Sunday in hopes he can help get the team inside of the top 35.

Making the starting field based on qualifying speed could be a problem due to the weather forecast for the greater Martinsville area. There's a 60% chance of rain during the day on Friday and a 90% Friday night. On Saturday, when qualifying is scheduled, there's also a 60% chance of rain. The good news is there will be a return to sunny skies on Sunday, race day, but it's going to be chilly all weekend with daytime highs expected to range in the low to mid fifties. The Martinsville Speedway has a fleet of four jet dryers that takes approximately 90 minutes to dry the track.

The Martinsville Speedway's 0.526 mile oval is uniquely shaped like a paper clip. It has curbs at the bottom of the turns, approximately six inches high, which always provides a challenge to the drivers. There is 12 degrees of banking in the turns. The straightaways are short, measuring 800 feet long, and are completely flat as in zero degrees of banking. The speedway's pit road is also a major challenge with narrow pit stalls that measures 14 feet wide by 28 feet long. The pit road speed is a slow 30 MPH.

The Martinsville Speedway has a very rich history and is one of the oldest, continually operated, race tracks in the nation. Clay Earles opened the speedway, as a dirt track, back in 1947. The speedway was paved in 1955 and the four turns were covered in concrete in 1976. The fan section has grown tremendously over the years and the speedway now has seating for 61,000. 

The Martinsville Speedway has also played a highly significant role in the history of NASCAR. The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held there is September of 1949 and was won by the legendary Red Byron. Since that time there has been 125 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Martinsville that has sent 46 different winners to victory lane. The legendary King Richard Petty tops the win list at Martinsville with 15 trips to victory lane. Jeff Gordon leads the modern era drivers with seven wins. Petty Enterprises leads the team win categories with 19. However Hendrick Motorsports, with 18 wins, could tie that mark this Sunday and, at the same time, collect their 200th team win.

Track position is always going to be important in a NASCAR race and that's especially true at a short track race such as Martinsville. The first phase of good track position comes from qualifying day. The track qualifying record, 98.083 MPH, was set by Tony Stewart back in October of 2005. Three time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip holds the track record for most poles at eight. Jeff Gordon leads the modern era drivers having set fast time on seven occasions. 19 races at Martinsville have been won the pole position.

The Tums Fast Relief 500 will be broadcast live by the ESPN Network with the "Countdown" show beginning at 1 pm eastern time. The rebroadcasts of the race will be Monday morning, 12 am et, on ESPN2 and again on Wednesday, 12 pm et, on SPEED.

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