It seems like only yesterday that young Trevor Bayne was making history in the Daytona 500. The 20-year-old driver was on top of the world after piloting the legendary Wood Brothers No. 21 to Victory Lane in the Great American Race. But fast forward to October, and now Bayne has Jeff Gordon fans peeved at him because of a late race move at Talladega to work with fellow Ford Racing driver Matt Kenseth, even after promising Gordon he would help the four-time champion (and his own childhood racing hero) out. Ah, how times change.
Bayne’s fall from grace isn’t the only change that’s blown in on the wind this fall. With just four races left in the season, NASCAR is looking at the very likely scenario of a new champion for the first time in five years. Jimmie Johnson now has more than a full-race deficit to make up this weekend in Martinsville if he wants to have even a morsel of a shot at a “six-pack.” Meanwhile, Roush Fenway Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth are sitting first and second in points, respectively, and finishing right where they need to in order to maintain those positions while behind them, a myriad of drivers jockey for position to make a late run, Johnson not among them. A change is on the horizon as the Sprint Cup Series blows into the little track nestled in the Blue Ridge.
However, this title hunt is far from over, and now, with the crapshoot of Talladega over and done, we can finally start naming the favorites, right?
Wrong. In fact, Martinsville may have more to say about this championship than originally thought. Realistically, no one outside the top 5 is going to win this championship, though we’ll extend that courtesy to Johnson in eighth simply because of his credentials. However, Martinsville may be the championship contenders’ best opportunity to get ahead of Edwards and Kenseth and make them work for this year’s championship.
Edwards himself has mentioned Martinsville as a legitimate concern as he guns toward his first career Sprint Cup Series championship, as it is a track that he and his RFR teammates have struggled at in the past. Edwards has an average finish of 17th in 14 starts at the track with only four top 10s. Though it is noteworthy that two of those top-10 runs came in the last three races at the series’ shortest track, there is no doubt that Martinsville could very well be a hurdle for this team.
Kenseth’s results on the paper clip aren’t much better. The 39-year-old has only one top-10 finish at the track in his last five races there, and he has only seven such results total in 23 starts.
With that said, there wouldn’t be much concern if one of the duo’s closest competitors, Tony Stewart, hadn’t had some success there. While he has struggled at Martinsville in his last few appearances (three consecutive finishes outside the top 20), Stewart does have a statistic to his credit that Kenseth and Edwards don’t: a victory. Two victories, in fact. Stewart won at the Virginia short track in 2000 and 2006 and has a total of 13 top 10 results in 25 races with an average finish of 14th, three spots better than Edwards’ average.
But let’s not forget everyone’s favorite dark horse,Brad Keselowski, either. After squeezing into the Chase via a wild-card slot, Keselowski has worked his way up to third in points and is also looking for his first career Cup championship. While his success at Martinsville is limited (one top 10 in three starts), the Michigan native’s statistics at several tracks were not previously very impressive either, but he’s managed to win on three of them and snag 10 top-5 results on those tracks this season alone. Basically, past results at specific tracks for Keselowski are not necessarily indicative of how he’ll perform the next time around. Three races is simply not enough to predict how the Michigan native will fare.
So why, exactly, is it so important for Stewart and Keselowski (and others) to out-race Edwards and Kenseth _this_ weekend?
The answer is simple: if they don’t, they might not get another chance. The remaining three races of the season are mile tracks or larger, configurations that both Edwards and Kenseth tend to excel on. Even the reconfigured and repaved racetrack at Phoenix, which is considered to be an “even slate” track because of the new surface, shouldn’t be enough to deter either driver if they go there with a decent lead.
Consider this: Edwards and Kenseth have a combined 10 victories across the final three racetracks at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead-Miami, and Roush Fenway Racing as a whole has 21 total victories at those tracks. Even though Stewart has been successful at those tracks, too (he has wins at all three tracks) and Keselowski has improved everywhere he’s raced, it’s much easier to get ahead and stay there than it is to play catch-up and hope for your competitors to make a mistake so late in the game.
As far as Johnson is concerned, anything short of a dominant win at Martinsville combined with a terrible day for the top four will most likely be the final blow to his championship hopes, which might be a welcome relief to everyone except his fans.
The fact that all Edwards has to do is finish in the top 15 to maintain the points lead might already be good news for RFR, but riding around on a track with already very little racing room might not be the best strategy either. While I’m not singling out either Kenseth or Edwards as the title “favorites” quite yet, Stewart, Keselowski, and even Kevin Harvick will need to out-race the two of them by a solid margin if they want to keep them within shouting distance. Even now, the deficits (Kenseth -14, Keselowski -18, Stewart -19) are already well within Edwards’ favor and give him the opportunity to play it safe if he so chooses.
Even with the question marks looming large over Phoenix and Martinsville, it will be very hard to beat either of these drivers if some ground isn’t gained in this very weekend. However, if we have learned anything this season, it is to never say never and that anything can happen. In all likelihood, Martinsville will probably bring even more validity to both of those statements, which gives every driver reason to be nervous and every fan good reason to tune in.
Or at the very least, to set the DVR.
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