The quiet Easter break comes to a screeching halt this Sunday as the Sprint Cup drivers take to the Virginia paper clip known as Martinsville Speedway. Festively painted Easter eggs give way to brightly painted stock cars; and you can bet that on the circuit’s smallest track, more than one car will end up cracked by the end of the day.
With the unpredictability of Martinsville in full bloom, which drivers will help you dust off the cobwebs from the off-week with a good finish – and which ones will leave you wishing you could take an extended vacation? Read on to see who the Frontstretch fantasy experts think you should use and who you should abuse this weekend in this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Normally, there are plenty of hard feelings coming out of Martinsville, thanks to the close confines and bumper banging, but the end of last year’s Goody’s Cool Orange 500 seemed to be a lovefest between teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. The Hendrick duo found themselves 1-2 in the closing laps of the race, and had any other driver been behind Johnson as the checkered flag approached, he most likely would have been moved out of the way. That’s not to say Gordon didn’t give him all he could handle, but he did stop short of wrecking Johnson to claim victory. The win was Johnson’s third in the first six races of the 2007 season and his third straight at Martinsville. Gordon was strong all day, leading a total of 97 laps before settling for second place. Polesitter Denny Hamlin led 125 circuits, but a problem during the last pit stop of the day put him outside the top 10 for the final restart. However, he was able to battle back to finish third; behind him, Kyle Busch finished fourth just ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led 137 laps – the most of any driver.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Martinsville is the shortest track on the circuit, with the tightest radius corners. The key at the paperclip, more than any other track on the schedule, is making the car roll through the center of the corner. The better that the car can get through the center, the faster the driver can get on the gas and get up to full speed. That generally translates into the elusive forward bite, which is a car’s ability to get off of the corner at maximum velocity. Most of the teams on the tour are getting a handle on the front end of this new racecar, and it is showing up in the fact that more drivers are complaining of being loose. That’s a major change, for the predominant complaint all of last year with the new car was that it was too tight.
At this point, fantasy owners should focus on the teams that were strong at Bristol, because the handling at the concrete oval in the Tennessee mountains is the closest thing to what they’ll be dealing with this week. Obviously, the Childress cars should be on the top of anyone’s list based on that criteria; however, Jeff Burton is the only RCR driver that is in the top 14 in average finish at Martinsville. Check out some other teams that finished right behind them at the half-mile two weeks ago. While Hendrick Motorsports has struggled some this year, with the exception of Earnhardt Jr., their drivers have owned Martinsville in the recent past. Johnson is the three-time defending champion at the track, and Gordon won four of the seven races before Johnson went on that tear. Don’t forget about the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, either; Busch, Tony Stewart and Hamlin all looked strong at Bristol before various issues took them out of contention.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Stewart was in position to win the race at Bristol. Unfortunately, Kevin Harvick had a bobble that ended Stewart’s day before he got the chance. But expect the No. 20 team to bounce back here; Stewart is fifth among active drivers in average finish at Martinsville (12.3). He’s got two wins, a second and two thirds at the paperclip-shaped oval, and really knows how to get around the place. With the way the Joe Gibbs camp has been running, if Stewart can make it to the checkered without a major incident, he should be right in the middle of things at the end of the race.
Earnhardt Jr. has been carrying the banner for HMS so far in 2008. He is the only Hendrick driver within the cutoff for the Chase at this juncture of the season, running roughshod over teammates Johnson and Gordon. Earnhardt is ninth in average finish at Martinsville with a 14.8 average, and almost half (7 of 16) of his race finishes have been in the top five. Earnhardt does not get as much credit as he deserves for his short-track abilities, but he is one of the best short-track drivers on the circuit. Expect him to continue his strong showing to start the season with another top finish this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Elliott Sadler is sure to get a lot of publicity this weekend about going home to Virginia to race. Unfortunately for Sadler, coming home has very seldom translated into a strong finish. In 18 career starts at the paper clip, Sadler has one top five and three top-10 finishes. Maybe it’s the hot dogs, but Sadler has more finishes of 32nd or worse at Martinsville than he has in the top 10. While GEM has shown some flashes of improvement this season, they are still not looking like they are ready to contend for the front of the pack just yet. It looks like another weekend to leave Sadler on the pine.
Robby Gordon is doing an outstanding job this season as the only owner/driver in the series, and has himself solidly in the Top 35 in points. But while this season has been rather successful for Gordon, his history at Martinsville has been anything but. Gordon has run at the track 14 times, never finishing higher than 20th in any race. His average finish is 32.9, and half of his finishes have been 36th or worse. Even though Gordon has had some decent runs this year, his history at Martinsville begs that he be left on the sidelines this week.
Roll the Dice:
Johnson has been struggling at the start of the 2008 season, and Chad Knaus has sounded more perplexed this year than he has in most of his professional career. However, Johnson is the two-time series defending champion and three-time race defending champ. Even though Johnson has struggled, he is only 13th in points, and the team has salvaged some good finishes even when they haven’t been the best all day. Add to that the fact that he has the highest average finish of any active driver at 6.9, and it would seem like a given he’ll be able to rebound with a solid finish this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
After five races in the 2007 season, Jeff Gordon is shocking fans for unlikely reasons. With no wins and two finishes of 35th or worse, he currently sits 14th in the standings coming off the Easter break. But it should be back to business as usual for Gordon this weekend at Martinsville. Gordon, a seven-time Martinsville winner, has scored 10 straight top-10 finishes at the Virginia short track, with eight of them being top fives. He may have been down earlier this season, but look for a coming out party for Gordon and the No. 24 team this weekend.
While his former teammate has been struggling this year, Busch has been basking in success with his new team at JGR. Busch enters race six of the year as the points leader, thanks to three top-five finishes and a win at Atlanta. While on paper, Busch had his worst performance of the year (17th) last week at Bristol, keep in mind that he spent most of the second half of the race fighting steering issues. Without a doubt, the No. 18 team is one of the hottest on the circuit; and with four top 10s in six Martinsville starts, now is not the time to jump off the bandwagon.
Sit ‘Em Down:
This week, David Reutimann takes over the famed No. 44 UPS ride from the recently retired Dale Jarrett; but don’t look for a great run to celebrate the new pairing. While Reutimann has shown improvement over last season, demonstrated by his 25th position in the standings, he still has only eked out one finish higher than 20th. In his brief history at Martinsville, he has managed a meager 25th-average finish, clearly nothing to write home about. Yes, Michael Waltrip Racing has shown improvement; but be careful of getting carried away by using them this early in the season.
While he is off to a good, but quiet, start in 2008, Martin Truex Jr. is one driver you may want to take a pass on using this week. Granted, he did finish 13th last weekend at Bristol; but that final tally was aided by other drivers who had run better for the majority of the day falling out. Looking at his track record at Martinsville, where he has no finish higher than 19th in four starts, doesn’t instill much confidence in the No. 1 group.
Roll the Dice:
Once again, Hamlin saw his chances of victory at Bristol dashed due to a fuel pickup problem; but he could make things right with a trip to Victory Lane this weekend at Martinsville. Hamlin still managed to come out of Bristol with a sixth-place finish, his best result of 2007, and should be easily able to top or match that this Sunday. Hamlin was the polesitter in his home-state race one year ago, and if not for a problem with the jack on the final stop, could have likely been celebrating the win. With four top 10s in five Martinsville starts, it seems to just be a matter of time until he will be pulling into Victory Lane.
Mike: Well, I didn’t pull away from you as much as I could have last race. Had Busch not had his difficulties with the power steering, I could have had two top-five finishes. Although I had to practically get FBI assistance to find out what happened to your boy Edwards at the end of the race.
Cami: I certainly thought I would get a better finish out of him. But 11th and 16th wasn’t so bad. I was happy to see Greg Biffle helped me squeak out the win in the Roll the Dice department.
Mike: True, you are definitely putting a whipping on me in that category this year. Although this weekend could see a change in that department. I have to think that the No. 48 is going to get this thing figured out. And Martinsville is the place that they have all but owned since JJ got into the car. But then again, you stole Hamlin from me, and I honestly think he is going to win this weekend.
Cami: Wonderful – I’ve been jinxed now. While it doesn’t do much for the “trash” part of this segment, I do agree with you that Johnson should run well this weekend. The only downside is that he hasn’t been close to keeping those winning streaks going this year. This would be four in a row at Martinsville if he could pull it off.
Mike: Exactly. And I don’t know that he’s going to pull off the win, but I think he’ll be in the top 10 and probably the top five. I think Junior is the one who is going to lead the Hendrick brigade again, though. They are getting so close that they are bound to break through eventually.
Cami: Speaking of close. Stewart got a close shave – er, wax – last week. You’re not worried about any lingering effects?
Mike: Of course not. Do you not remember JJ Yeley getting his waxing? He immediately started finishing better. I fully believe the more aerodynamic Stewart will be right at the front. And you obviously think that the JGR boys are going to shake off their bad luck, anyways, with picking Busch this weekend.
Cami: Well, when you have bad luck and still can finish 17th, that’s not a terrible day. Not the best, but it could be a lot worse. Busch’s top-10 percentage at Martinsville is worth risking another top-20 finish over.
Mike: I hear you. Banking on the same type of luck with Gordon? I know he’s owned Martinsville in the past, and I have to think the Hendrick boys are going to come out blazing after an off week.
Cami: Exactly. Both Gordon and Johnson have been uncharacteristically off so far this year. But Gordon is starting to come around. I think they will be looking to make a big statement this week to show they aren’t going to be forgotten this season.
Mike: I also noticed you are not banking on Truex improving his history at Martinsville. Did his 13th place at Bristol not show you that he’s coming around on the short tracks?
Cami: He’s barely cracked the top 20 at Martinsville in the past, and he wouldn’t have been 13th at Bristol if it wasn’t for some other drivers having bad luck late in the race. But I guess we will have to see how it all pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Cami and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings; Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings; and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 12.2
Sit – 20.8
Roll – 14.4
Crank – 14.5
Sit – 21.8
Roll – 21.6
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