The biggest wild card in The Chase for the Sprint Cup is in the rearview mirror. Fantasy owners are breathing a sigh of relief this week as the series goes from one of its biggest and fastest ovals to one of its smallest and slowest. However, one constant remains: close racing. With tight racing comes impatient drivers and that means more bumper tag. Chase contenders *Kyle Busch* and *Kevin Harvick* were victims at Talladega. There is no telling who it will be at Martinsville.
Much like at Talladega, there isn’t a way to play it safe at Martinsville. Only three Chase drivers ended up in the top-10 last Sunday (*Brad Keselowski*, *Tony Stewart*, *Denny Hamlin*). Your best bet is to ignore the standings heading into the weekend and only put drivers in your lineup that have had past success at Martinsville. For example, *Carl Edwards* and *Matt Kenseth* have been the best two drivers in The Chase thus far, but they have sub-par results (see below) at the short track.
Don’t let The Chase situation impact your lineup.
The spring race at Martinsville wasn’t an indication of just how dominant *Jimmie Johnson* and Hamlin have been on the short track. The duo finished 11th and 12th, respectively. It was the first time Johnson had finished outside the top-10 since his rookie year in 2002 and the first time for Hamlin since 2006.
Hamlin and Johnson’s average runs could be looked at in two ways. Has the rest of the field caught up, ending the dominance of the No. 11 and No. 48? Or was the spring race an illusion on top of a wealth of statistics that prove no one has been better than Johnson and Hamlin?
I choose to think it is the latter, and that is why they are the two top-level drivers in my fantasy lineup this week. Before placing 12th in the spring, Hamlin’s worst result was sixth in the previous nine races. He was first, first, first and second in his previous four starts. In the last five events, the Virginia-native has led 803 laps.
Johnson hasn’t put up the numbers Hamlin has in recent years, but has still been outstanding. Johnson has led laps in 11 of the last 15 events at the 0.5-mile facility and has won six times. Both of these guys should be back at the front again on Sunday.
No driver has recorded top-10s in each of the last five races at Martinsville, but four drivers have four top-10s in that span. Hamlin, Johnson and *Jeff Gordon* may not come as surprises, but *Mark Martin’s* name is also in that group. Martin was tenth in the spring and second in the fall race of 2010. Hendrick Motorsports has a history of running good at NASCAR’s tightest track and Martin has been no exception. Since joining the No. 5 team in 2009, his average finish is 9.6.
*Dale Earnhardt Jr.* hasn’t been far behind Martin in that same time span. The four Hendrick drivers all fall in the top-7 since 2009. In the spring race, Earnhardt Jr. was a late-run from Harvick away from grabbing his first victory since 2008. Earnhardt Jr. also has top-10s in five of his last seven starts.
The polesitter in the spring race at Martinsville could be a wise choice this weekend. *Jamie McMurray* led 31 laps and finished seventh earlier this season. It was one of only four top-10s for McMurray in what has been a miserable 2011 campaign. His statistics at Martinsville prove the performance was no fluke. McMurray has come home 11th or better in four of his last five starts at the track.
*David Ragan* is the best low-level choice available this weekend. Ragan has finished in the top-20 in each of the last three races around the 0.5-mile paperclip, including a career-best eighth-place run in the spring. Things may look bleak for the rest of the Roush Fenway stable, but they are looking up for Ragan.
This weekend will be all about damage control for the top two drivers in The Chase for the Sprint Cup. Edwards and Kenseth have combined for 11 top-10s in 37 starts at Martinsville. Kenseth hasn’t finished in the top-5 since 2007 and Edwards hasn’t since 2008. Many fantasy owners will lean toward playing it safe in the final four weeks of the season, but picking the two most consistent drivers so far in playoffs on Sunday could be a big mistake.
At the intermediate tracks, it can be difficult to pinpoint top-level drivers who will struggle for a complete race. At a bullring like Martinsville, it is much easier. Edwards and Kenseth aren’t the only Chasers who have had trouble. *Kurt Busch* hasn’t placed in the top-10 at Martinsville since 2005, when he drove the No. 97 for Jack Roush. Busch has been 16th in his last two outings, off the lead lap each time.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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