The new and modern way of determining a series champion heads to the racetrack that has been on the Cup schedule the longest as it travels to southern Virginia for the second and final trip to Martinsville. Fantasy gamers are once again on edge because they face the daunting possibility that their driver can be caught up in someone else’s mess, causing a weekend of ruin through no fault of their own on this half-mile short track. At least most of your team won’t be distracted by the mounting pressure of the Chase. At this point, the championship is down to a three- or four-driver race; everyone else in the field is either gunning for a victory or testing things to get a head start on next year. The worry for fantasy players, of course, is that their driver will be testing and have a failure before the race is over.
But for the top three left battling for the trophy, failure is no longer an option. Jeff Burton put himself solidly back in the middle of things with his victory at Charlotte last weekend. Will a visit to his home track provide him with some much needed home cooking to get himself even closer to the point lead? Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson had a bad week by his standards at Charlotte, coming home sixth. Will Johnson be able to rebound on his strongest track on the circuit and move within two victories of the active lead total for wins at the paperclip? Or, will someone completely off the radar come through and shock everyone by stealing a win at Martinsville? Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers may win the grandfather clock beyond these three fantasy locks – and which ones for whom the bell tolls.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
Hendrick Motorsports continued its utter dominance of Martinsville Raceway last October. Teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon combined to lead 315 of the 506 laps run, with the No. 48 scoring the win and the 2007 sweep at the famed Virginia short track. HMS placed three cars in the top five, with Johnson, Gordon in third and Kyle Busch in fourth. Dodge also had a pair of unlikely top-10 finishers, with Ryan Newman enjoying his strongest run of the 2007 season, finishing second to Johnson by a literal nose while Juan Pablo Montoya scored an eighth-place result. Behind them, Denny Hamlin was the only JGR driver in the top 10. DEI’s best-finishing car was Martin Truex Jr. in a distant 19th.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Martinsville is all about making the car roll through the center of the corner. The track is two drag strips connected by U-turns at both ends. The better a team can make the car roll through the middle of the turn, the faster the driver can get back to the gas and drive off. Getting off of the corner is what determines whether a driver can get past a competitor before they have to turn left again at the end of the straight. As the teams have learned more and more about the new car configuration, they have been able to make it turn better, thus making the competition closer and putting more in the hands of the driver. Brakes and brake cooling are a big concern as well for the teams. The brakes are abused more at Martinsville than any other track on the schedule. The new car configuration has made cooling more difficult, and brake failure is certainly a possibility if teams don’t pay enough attention to their duct work. The other thing that teams need to avoid is cooling issues with their cars, because contact is inevitable during the race. With the competition in such close proximity and passing at a premium, there will be contact between the front and rear bumpers. If the grill opening gets closed off for someone, the engine will overheat and ruin their day.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Gordon is the active wins leader at Martinsville with seven trips to victory lane. While that is only halfway to the all-time win total of Richard Petty, it shows that Gordon is always a man to be aware of when the circuit heads to the big paperclip. With the near total lack of reliance on downforce at the half-mile track, almost all the success for the weekend lies in the hands of the driver. Gordon hasn’t finished outside the top five at Martinsville since 2004 and has had a top-10 finish in every race since 2002. After showing quite a bit of strength at Charlotte last weekend, look for Gordon to be in contention for the win all day Sunday.
Tony Stewart was among the drivers who were able to get to the front last weekend and build an impressive lead, only to get shuffled back in the pack on a restart and never show that strength again. This weekend will be a different story, though, because the fortunes of the team are far more in the hands of the driver. Stewart has won twice at Martinsville, and has four top fives and five top 10s in the last six races. Stewart still has an outside chance at the title, too, but is going to have to go on a Johnson-like tear of wins to get back to the top. Martinsville sets up to be a great opportunity for him to start that run.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Travis Kvapil has one finish in his six races at Martinsville higher than 21st place, and that was 18th this spring. Kvapil also has just one top-10 finish at a flat track in his career, with a 10th at Phoenix in 2005. With his last four finishes 23rd or worse, it appears Kvapil’s great run of luck early in the year has cooled off. It’s best to look elsewhere for some cheap help this weekend.
Truex was able to lead last weekend at Charlotte, but that was his only highlight after coming home 14th. Still, that is five places better than Truex has ever finished at Martinsville. He’s raced there five times and has two 19th place finishes as his best efforts. Truex has run well at Loudon and Pocono, but has not done well at all at Phoenix and Martinsville. DEI has been looking stronger lately, and could very well make some noise this weekend; but history says that Truex will not be the driver to do it.
Roll the Dice:
Running well at Martinsville requires excellence in straight-line braking. Montoya has likened getting into the corners there to getting into the corners on a road course quickly, and there’s little doubt the Colombian can do that with the best of them. JPM has run at Martinsville three times and his worst finish is just 16th. He scored an eighth-place run in this race last fall and his average finish at the track is 12.3, sixth best among active drivers. While it once again has not been a banner year for Montoya, he does show signs of brilliance at times… and this weekend could very well be one of them.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Gordon’s success at Martinsville is well-known, but Johnson has proven that pupils often surpass their tutors. Since the COT was adopted by NASCAR in 2007, Johnson has had two wins and a fourth-place finish. That’s right, his average finish at the track is 2.0. Add in an average of 131 laps led per event over the last three races, and it’s hard to pick against the defending champ.
Burton has been rock solid in the CoT races at Martinsville, with two top 10s, 88 laps led, and an average finish of 7.0. Burton has also been rock solid across the short-track circuit in Cup racing as well. Subtracting his early wreck at Bristol (which wasn’t of his making), Burton has finished in the top 10 in each short-track race this season, including a win at Bristol back in the spring. More than anything, Burton now has momentum on his side big time, too. The No. 31 is back in title contention, having scored the win and making up ground at the track Johnson calls “his house.” Man, if Burton can make up ground on the No. 48 at Lowe’s, there’s no reason to think he can’t at Martinsville.
Sit ‘Em Down:
What does Elliott Sadler have in common with fellow Cup drivers Burton and Denny Hamlin? Virginia roots. What does he not have in common? Recent success at Martinsville. While Burton has three consecutive top 15s on the paper clip and Hamlin won the last race held here in the spring, Sadler’s record at the oval has not come close to matching that of his Virginia brethren. Sadler has finished inside the top 20 only once in CoT competition here, with a distant average finish of 26.3. Sadler’s also been off the pace in the more recent short track events, with finishes of 32nd and 37th in the two summer races at Bristol and Richmond. Charlotte saw this team lose the momentum of consecutive top-10 finishes that they had built up, and it doesn’t look like this is the weekend for them to get it back.
Since moving to Team Red Bull, Brian Vickers hasn’t had much success to report at Martinsville. After failing to qualify for both races in 2007, Vickers struggled to a 40th-place qualifying effort in the spring, and came home an unremarkable 23rd, three laps down. The No. 83 team has not found a handle on short-tracking at all in 2008, with no lead-lap finishes and an average finish of 29.2. Plus, the team has been on a slide, with four finishes outside the top 30 in the last six races and a disappointing 18th-place run at Charlotte last week – a race they could have won in the spring. Red Bull’s focus will be on Scott Speed’s debut this weekend, not the No. 83, and without a special effort it’s not likely that Vickers will be able to muster much of a run up on Sunday.
Roll the Dice:
Jamie McMurray surprised a whole lot of people last week when he carried the Roush Fenway banner at Charlotte. And, based off of how his season has gone so far this year, he may surprise fantasy racers again this week. McMurray has averaged a top-15 finish in 2008 in the races immediately following a top-10 run of his. Plus, McMurray’s no slouch at Martinsville either. Since 2007, he’s averaged a start of 5.3 – never a bad thing for avoiding trouble at a short track – and has scored two top 10s in his last three races there. McMurray was eighth here in the spring, out of the blue. This weekend, the No. 26 team has got some steam behind them, so don’t be surprised to see McMurray pull another decent run out of his hat.
Bryan: Well Mike, even a visit to the track this weekend couldn’t help my fantasy skills. You’ve put an official beatdown on me the last few weeks, and got the runner-up finisher last Saturday night. Attention readers, listen to Mike Neff.
Mike: Oh, I see how you’re rolling over now. Flatter me so that you jinx me and I have a terrible weekend. Nice try. Anyways, it was a great weekend at the track. I’m glad we got to hang together this past weekend. You didn’t have nearly the bad weekend you did at Talladega with your team, either. It just wasn’t a rousing success like your run from California through New Hampshire a few weeks ago. I was really surprised at Carl Edwards‘s bad luck this last weekend.
Bryan: It was more surprising to see more of Roush’s non-Chasers finish in the top 10 than Chasers. RFR’s advantage over the competition is not pronounced at short tracks like Martinsville… you can’t help but feel that the organization left a lot on the table after Charlotte.
Mike: Very true, especially in Edwards’s case. He’s not done yet, but he’s certainly very close, as is Clint Bowyer. Other than those two, I think the rest of the Chasers are too far back to have a realistic shot. Then again, qualifying could be rained out and Johnson could take out Burton and Greg Biffle heading into turn one.
Bryan: We’ve seen the polesitter at Martinsville cause problems on the first lap in the past… a few years back, Scott Riggs hit Ryan Newman and cut one of his tires on the first lap. If Johnson is on the pole, though, I don’t see him having problems. HMS has flat owned this racetrack over the last few years. It’s going to take something special to overtake them on the paperclip.
Mike: That is true. They are, without a doubt, the current kings of Martinsville. Heck, on his current pace, Johnson could end up rivaling Petty for all-time wins at the track. He’s already just short of a third of the way there. Whoever beats that (if anyone does), it’s going to be an amazing feat for someone to get anywhere close to 15 victories at a track. That is a boatload of wins.
Bryan: What excites me about Martinsville is that it’s not hard to see a driver who doesn’t have a boatload of wins taking the checkers. Burton is red hot after Lowe’s, Gordon sure as hell doesn’t want to go winless in 2008, it’s all but a home race for Hamlin… who knows who could break through?
Mike: Very true. I thought Gordon was going to make it happen last weekend. The Hendrick boys were all a little on the irritated side: Johnson was very fired up having lost so many spots late in the race, Gordon was as frustrated as I’ve seen him in a long time, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about at the end of his rope over all the blown tires. It’s probably a safe bet there will be more people upset and frustrated after this weekend’s event.
Bryan: People upset and frustrated on the circuit’s shortest track? Never… it’s perfect timing, as this is the last real wild card weekend before the Chase. We’ll have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan 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 – 14.2
Sit – 20.5
Roll – 21.2
Crank – 10.7
Sit – 21.3
Roll – 17.6