Matt Stallknecht · Friday October 25, 2013
Tiny Martinsville Speedway is the site of Round 7 of the NASCAR Chase for the Cup, and after a weekend filled with high-speed superspeedway drafting action, the series will be making a sharp transition to a low-speed and technically-oriented short track. Martinsville is the oldest track on the NASCAR circuit, and perhaps the most universally-adored facility of any in the sport. Just like any other time we head to Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend as the overwhelming favorite, this time in the midst of an ever-intensifying battle for the championship with a rejuvenated Matt Kenseth. Between the on-going championship battle, the rough and tumble nature of short track racing, and the dwindling title hopes for a few remaining Chasers, Martinsville has plenty in the way of questions to offer the inquisitive NASCAR fan this week, so let’s get right to it.
1. Could Martinsville be a wreckfest?
Any time the series heads to Martinsville, teams brace themselves knowing that they can and probably will be bringing home a race car with some torn sheet metal on it. Martinsville is one of only two true “contact-oriented tracks” left on the schedule (with the other being Bristol), and there is an expectation that cautions will feature prominently in the race on Sunday. This opens up a flood of questions for teams.
One of the key elements of Gen-6 short track races thus far has been contact, and a lot of it. The Gen-6 cars drive/race much better on the short tracks than their Gen-5 brethren did, which makes the drivers race harder and take more chances. This leads to more wrecks. The Martinsville Fall race in particular is traditionally extra contact-heavy to boot since many of the teams have nothing to lose at this point in the season. This all leads me to expect a very messy race on Sunday.
For the drivers and teams still running for the championships, they thus must approach this race with a great deal of trepidation. With lots of cautions comes lots of pit strategy, and Martinsville is infamous for mid-race field shuffling because of back-to-back caution periods. Crew chiefs will have to stay ahead of the game on the pit box, and drivers will have to stay ahead of the wrecks, in order to see success at Virginia’s biggest paperclip.
2. Could this be Denny Hamlin’s chance to get his season back on track?
It’s been a miserable year for Denny Hamlin. After suffering a crippling back injury at the Auto Club 400 earlier this season, Hamlin went on to miss four races, and then was forced to watch helplessly as his biggest rival in the sport (Joey Logano) ran circles around him for the rest of the season. Denny-time, it certainly is not.
Of course, all of that could change this weekend in Martinsville. Hamlin is absurdly good at the little paperclip-shaped short track, and he’s actually won a race here before while injured (well…semi-injured…he won the Spring Martinsville race in 2010 coming off of knee surgery). Not only that, Hamlin’s been improving a bit as of late in terms of on track running position. The finishes haven’t been there, but he does seem to be running better more consistently, perhaps suggesting a slow return to form for the Virginia native.
Hamlin could be an interesting dark horse pick (kind of weird to think of Hamlin as a dark horse, eh?) this week. Few will be expecting him to do well, and next to Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin is best Martinsville-specific driver in the field. Keep an eye out for car No. 11 on Sunday, as I think this could be the weekend Hamlin finally turns things around.
3. Does Jimmie Johnson have Matt Kenseth on the ropes?
For the first two/thirds of last Sunday’s race at Talladega, top title contenders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson fought hammer and tong for the lead in a thrilling display that most figured would last through the end of the race. Both drivers ended up with mediocre finishes due to a mix of poor decision-making in the draft and ill-handling race cars, but nonetheless, their mid-race battle was a sight to see. The question of course is will we see these two fight for the lead (and by extension, the points lead) again on Sunday? Many would tell you no. I am not one of those people.
After Johnson took over the points lead in rather uninspiring fashion last week, many pointed to Martinsville as Johnson’s best chance to pull away from Kenseth. This seems to be a rather presumptuous thing to assume. Kenseth was a top 5 performer for the vast majority of the Spring event at Martinsville before a late race fade relegated him to a 14th place finish. Since then, Kenseth has won two races at tracks shorter than a mile (Bristol and New Hampshire). The New Hampshire win was especially relevant to this weekend’s Martinsville race, as New Hampshire is essentially a super-sized version of Martinsville.
Kenseth will not simply roll over for Johnson this weekend. Yes, Johnson is a stalwart at Martinsville, but Kenseth’s overall performance in 2013 should provide enough reason to believe he will be a contender on Sunday as well. Expect another battle between the 20 and 48 all afternoon long.
4. Will any drivers be receiving payback from early season disputes? Perhaps Kyle Busch?
Ask any driver in the Sprint Cup garage, if they had to pick one race and one track to dish out some payback to a driver that wronged them at some point in the year, they would choose the Martinsville fall event as their race of choice.
Why is this, you ask? Well, for starters, the low speeds and close-proximity racing inherent to Martinsville makes it a relatively safe and perhaps even harmless place to wreck somebody. On top of that, most drivers save their payback intentions for this race because many have little to lose in the way of points at this time of the year. Martinsville is thus the facility of choice for Sprint Cup Series revenge efforts.
On the top of this year’s payback watch list would have to be Kyle Busch. Busch has seriously pissed off two prominent drivers multiples times in 2013 (see Kahne, Kasey and Keselowski, Brad for further reference). Keselowski in particular has made no attempt to hide the fact that he intends to wreck Busch at some point due to an incident at the Nationwide event at Kansas a few weeks ago. If such payback is going to happen, Martinsville would be the most logical venue for it to go down.
No matter what, someone is probably going to get punted at some point on Sunday afternoon, and if it’s a Chaser such as Kyle Busch, it could end up having major implications on the Chase. Certainly something you’ll want to be mindful of as you watch on Sunday.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500:
Johnson is the smart choice this week. Kenseth figures to be strong, despite what his doubters may believe. 48, 20, and 24 are your top picks heading into the weekend.
1. 48-Jimmie Johnson
2. 20-Matt Kenseth
3. 24-Jeff Gordon
4. 11-Denny Hamlin
5. 2-Brad Keselowski
6. 78-Kurt Busch
7. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
8. 18-Kyle Busch
9. 15-Clint Bowyer
10. 29-Kevin Harvick
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