This weekend’s race at Martinsville kicks off the second half of NASCAR’s playoffs, the Chase for the Championship. The first five races have been kind to some of us (Mike), while others are struggling to make up lost ground from early miscues (Cami). On the track, Jeff Burton has made the biggest gain, moving from his eighth-place starting position in the Chase to become the man everyone is chasing. The RCR organization Burton drives for has become the team to beat, with Burton’s teammate Kevin Harvick holding steady in third place in the standings. On the flip side of that playoff rollercoaster is Rick Hendrick’s organization. All three teams in the Chase have had their share of woes, and only Jimmie Johnson seems to have a reasonable outside chance of making it to the front in the next five weeks, perhaps saving your fantasy team in the process.
Of course, always keep in mind that everything doesn’t always go as planned… it’s why they race every weekend. With that in mind, who should you use on your fantasy team to kick off the final leg of the Chase? Let’s find out.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
The Cup series has run a record 115 races at Martinsville Speedway, but in every single one of those races the key has remained the same. Getting your car to roll through the center of the corner so that you can pick up the throttle early and launch down the straightaway has always made the difference at this short track. The tight paperclip shape also puts a premium on track position, as passing can be difficult. The teams that will do well at Martinsville are the teams that will both qualify up front and have great stops on pit road to make sure they stay there. Of course, expect the typical crowd that does well on the short tracks to do well at Martinsville, too.
Cami’s Instant Replay
It was the Gordon and Stewart show last fall, as the two drivers combined to lead 434 of the race’s 500 laps. When the checkered flag fell, turned out both drivers came out a winner; Gordon visited victory lane for the first time with new crew chief Steve Letarte, while Stewart’s runner up result allowed him to eke out a 15-point lead in the standings over third-place finisher Johnson with four races remaining. Bobby Labonte and Burton rounded out the top five.
Crank ‘Em Up
Stewart was able to leave Charlotte on his own Saturday night, a far cry from his two tough crashes in May that messed up his shoulder. He still didn’t run as well during the race as he had hoped, but he remains solidly in 11th in the point standings, with the desire to win several more races before the year is out. Having already won the spring race at Martinsville, look for another strong performance from the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team this weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is underrated on short tracks. He has led the series in short track points on more than one occasion in his career, racking up four wins in the process (although none have come at Martinsville). The team has also been running strong in the Chase, although the finish at Talladega hurt his championship hopes. Expect the always-strong No. 8 DEI pit crew to keep him up front and give him a chance to finish well this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down
Elliott Sadler has not done well in the fall race in his home state in a while. His last three finishes late in the season at Martinsville have been 28th, 32nd and 29th. The No. 19 Evernham Motorsports team has been a little off the last few races, and look for that trend to continue with a poor showing this weekend.
Greg Biffle simply doesn’t run well at Martinsville. In seven races at the half-mile track, Biffle has never posted a top-15 result. In fact, his average finish is a paltry 24.1. This would be the weekend to sit the No. 16 and wait for that team to get back to a 1.5-mile track.
Roll the Dice
Ryan Newman had a horrific night at Charlotte, visiting the pits more times than the NASCAR officials screwed up the scoring. Look for the No. 12 Penske Racing team to bounce back, putting on a good show this weekend to give the Dodge fans something to cheer about. Newman’s average finish at the track is 15.4, but he has four top-five finishes in nine career starts.
Crank ‘Em Up
I guess it’s my turn to ride the Hendrick bandwagon this weekend. First up is Gordon. Yeah, I know he has three straight DNFs, but this is Martinsville we are talking about, and Gordon has owned this track in the past three years. Since 2003, he has four wins and seven straight top-10 finishes. With his recent bad luck, Gordon needs something big to happen if he’s going to get back into the Chase, and that boost SHOULD come this weekend.
The second driver I’m plucking out of the Hendrick stable is Johnson. He doesn’t have the wins at this track that his teammate/boss does, but his average finish is almost as good. Johnson has run a total of nine Martinsville races, and with the exception of a 35th-place finish his first time out, he has finished in the top 10 each time. Expect that streak to keep going on Sunday.
Sit ‘Em Down
Carl Edwards has been on a hot streak lately with four straight top 10s, but that should come to a halt this weekend. In four races at the Virginia short track, Carl has managed only one finish inside the top 20, giving him an average finish of 26.0. With his current momentum, he may do better than that this weekend, but if his history is any indication, that’s not very likely.
Scott Riggs has been qualifying well lately, but that hasn’t translated over to good finishes as of late. Heading into this weekend’s race, he has just one top 10 at Martinsville, and none in the last five races of this year. The biggest victory this weekend for Riggs will be simply playing the role of blocker for his Chase teammate Kasey Kahne.
Roll the Dice
Fresh off his third straight finish of 34th or worse, I’m taking a gamble this week on Jamie McMurray. Hey, I’m taking Gordon, too, with his three straight poor finishes, so I’m sensing a good-luck theme here. Gordon has a good record at Martinsville and so does McMurray, although his isn’t as great. But he does have five top 10s there in the last six races, which makes him worth a look this weekend.
Mike: I hope Hendrick doesn’t have a teamwide engine problem this week. If they do, you’ll be in trouble.
Cami: I only picked two of the four drivers, though.
Mike: Yeah, but you cranked up both of them. Gordon is a safe pick though.
Cami: They both have an average finish of almost 7.0 at Martinsville! Neither SHOULD have a bad day. But there are no guarantees.
Mike: No, there aren’t. Junior is a little bit of a stretch, but I think he’ll be strong. Stewart will be up front.
Cami: I think Stewart has a better chance than Junior does. He only has one top 10 in the last four races there.
Mike: True, but he is good on short tracks, and the team is running well.
Cami: Hopefully he won’t wreck on lap 1… like Denny Hamlin did on my team last week.
Mike: Yeah, that makes for a long day.
Cami: At least Hamlin rebounded to score me only -1. Turned out it was better to wreck early and let others fall out behind you as that race went on. It could have really bit the No. 11 team, but it wasn’t terminal to their Chase chances.
Mike: What about McMurray? That’s a very bold roll of the dice for you.
Cami: He’s got four top 10s there in the last five races, so it’s not too far out in left field. I was thinking of Edwards because he’s on a roll, but his Martinville record isn’t that much to brag about.
Mike: That is true, but remember, those finishes were with Ganassi, not with Roush. Oh, well… I guess we’ll have to wait and see how it all pans out.
Standings after Week 5
|Crank Em Up||Johnson- 2nd||10||Hamlin-28th||-1|
|Stewart- 13th||3||Biffle- 37th||-5|
|Sit Em Down||J. Gordon- 24th||0||Vickers- 10th||-5|
|Ky. Busch- 6th||-5||Harvick- 18th||-1|
|Roll the Dice||Nemechek- 9th||10||Edwards- 8th||10|