NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series goes from the high-speed drafting game at Talladega last week to the low-speed (and possibly bump-and-run) game at Martinsville this Sunday. It’s the seventh race in the Chase for the Championship and don’t expect contenders to play nice any longer. That’s especially true for those in the top 5 in points, when it comes to battling for positions that could make or break their title bid.
While Talladega is a place where accidents can just happen, as a result of going nearly 200 mph, stuck in the midst of a large pack of cars Martinsville is a place where accidents happen because someone slower was probably in the way on the half-mile track. One major priority and maybe bigger challenge there for the Chase contenders is the need to simply stay on the lead lap. If a tire goes down, if there is a mistake by the pit crew, or if someone is caught speeding on pit road, that could put a major dent into a driver’s championship hopes — or end them entirely. A 25th, even at this stage of the game is difficult to come back from with just three other races left.
Expect more yellow flags then the two (not counting the last lap) at Talladega last week; that will give some drivers down on their luck a chance to use the Lucky Dog. But if a car is really handling bad, and there is a long green-flag run, then getting back to the lead lap can be a big challenge, even through a wave around.
Those are just some of the things to keep in mind while making this week’s picks for your fantasy team. Pick drivers with a strong history of short track success… or risk sliding behind in the standings as the 2013 season comes rapidly to a close.
LOOKING FOR SOME ACES
It’s hard to start with this guy, but he’s back on top now and going to one of his best tracks. Yes, that would be Jimmie Johnson. While you might have been picking your spots to use Johnson this season if you are on pick limits, or trying to save a little money by not having him on your roster, this is one of the weeks you really want to use him. Johnson has two wins and a third top-5 finish in the last five races at Martinsville. He also knows what it takes to win a title, so unless you have the ability to foresee another Clint Bowyer slide-job on a late restart to take him out of contention, then you have to pick Johnson this week. His eight wins, at the speedway all-time lead all active drivers.
After Johnson, just who to look to among the so-called elite drivers is not quite as easy. Here are a few to think about, though. Jeff Gordon doesn’t have a win the last five races at Martinsville, but he does have three top 5s, another top-10 finish and has led 571 laps in those races. Gordon is 34 points behind Johnson in the standings and if he wants to entertain any chance of winning his fifth title, he will need a win. That means I would look for the No. 24 driver to be aggressive. Consider he does have seven career wins at Martinsville in 41 career races there… so keep an eye on Gordon for your roster.
A driver who also needs a win and has won in the last five trips to Martinsville is Kevin Harvick. He finds himself tied for third, 26 points behind Johnson. Harvick has led only 62 laps there in the last five races, but he does have one win and one other top-5 finish there. Richard Childress Racing is known for their short track prowess, so don’t be surprised to see the No. 29 running up front in the closing laps.
And if you’re wondering about Matt Kenseth at Martinsville, he has led 101 laps there in the last five races, but he has just one top 5 and another top-10 finish in those events. So, while he’s just four points behind Johnson and will be doing his best to eke out ahead of him, his record says that may be a pretty significant challenge. The No. 20 Toyota did run promising, this Spring leading 96 of those 101 circuits before fading to 14th at the finish.
MIDDLE OF THE ROADSTERS
Martinsville is one of the places that Kyle Busch probably both loves and hates at the same time. Busch is tied with Harvick, for third in the standings and he has had a much better record there, except for that little issue of not ending his day in Victory Lane. Busch has three top-5 finishes in the last five Martinsville races there and has led an impressive 333 laps in those events. He may be ready for a breakthrough here; or, it just may be one of those places where he can’t finish the deal. I think he may be ready to finish the deal this week.
Martinsville can be one of those tracks that can test the patience of a driver and one of the most patient ones (and some may say a little too patient) has been Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He didn’t have a good Spring race here, when he finished two laps down in 24th, but he does have two top-5 finishes and another top 10 in the last five races. This year, especially it seems Junior has been one of those who can hang around and try to get a good finish type of drivers. He very well could do that again on Sunday.
If you’re looking for what is probably a bit of cheaper/sleeper option in this category, you can take a look at Aric Almirola, who will be driving a No. 41 car this week in honor of “Chief” Maurice Petty instead of the usual No. 43. Almirola’s best finish in the last five races at Martinsville is a fourth, but he’s also not been terrible there and has an average finish of 10.7 in the last three races.
For those of you in need of a cheap option here, or having used almost all of your pick limits on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (um, that would be me), you were probably happy to hear that Kyle Larson will be in the No. 51 this week. Larson proved he belonged in Cup by running in the top 20 two weeks ago at Charlotte before his engine gave up the fight, relegating him to a 37th-place finish. So, we know the driver belongs; the equipment is the big question here. Still, at this stage in the game, Larson is probably a pretty good buy-low candidate.
Another new entry in these last four races will be Elliott Sadler driving the No. 55. In 24 career Sprint Cup races at Martinsville, he has one top-5 finish and two other top 10s. He’s also led 49 laps there, and despite the No. 55 having its third different driver in three weeks – and fourth this season – a strong showing is still a very real possibility for the Home State Hero. Sunday will be the driver’s first Cup start, at the paperclip since the Fall of 2010.
OK, we know to pretty much avoid Danica Patrick when it comes to these picks, but it would be wrong not to mention her here this time. That’s because Patrick managed a 12th-place finish at Martinsville this Spring. So, if you think she can come close to repeating that, put her on your team. While I like Danica, based on her recent finishes, I think she will be hard-pressed to repeat her Spring effort at Martinsville.
Last, but certainly not least, there is still Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. He finished 25th in the spring race at Martinsville, but he’s shown improvement throughout the season and I would expect him to improve on that third-place result from this past Sunday. It’s just a matter if he fits into your budget and how many races you have left for him on whether you should pick him this week or not.
We didn’t get the wild finish we thought would happen last week at Talladega, but we may be in for a wild finish in the two Frontstretch Fantasy Leagues in Yahoo! The overall standings show Nobody Rides for Free and SiLo Sounds Racing tied for the lead at 8,238 points. The first tiebreaker is most fantasy weekly wins during the season and Nobody Rides for Free has three of those, while SiLo Sounds Racing has none. Others still contending include RWO Motoring at 8,163 and Bomb Squad at 8,122.
And, speaking of ties, there was a three-way tie for the weekly winner this week! Awesome Bill No. 1, Sassy Motorsports and bundy’s bombers each had 356 points. They had race winner Jamie McMurray, then Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in second, David Ragan in seventh and Kevin Harvick in 12th.
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