NASCAR at Martinsville: Kevin Harvick and 6 Drivers Who'll Be in the Mix
There is nothing that can really be compared to Martinsville Speedway in the context of the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The closest resemblance to any track it has on the circuit is Bristol Motor Speedway, though even that is not really close.
Both tracks are about a half-mile, but Martinsville's flat surface requires a different approach for the teams and drivers as opposed to the steep inclines of Bristol.
Drivers will need to have eyes in the back of their head and would be wise to have a heavy foot on the brakes. There really isn't any way to coast around the tight corners at Martinsville.
Some drivers really excel, for various reasons, at this track. Defending Goody's Fast Relief 500 winner Kevin Harvick will certainly be competitive as he seeks his first victory of the 2012 season, though he will certainly have plenty of stiff challenges all day from a cadre of other hungry wolves.
While Martinsville is certainly not Kevin Harvick's best track, it is certainly not his worst. In 21 tries in these tight confines, "The Closer" has notched 10 top-10 finishes with three of those in the top five.
Last year's race marked his first and only win at one of NASCAR's oldest tracks, and he should be poised for, at worst, another finish inside the top 10.
So far in 2012, Harvick has very quietly positioned himself second in the point standings. Though he remains winless, he has not finished any race worse than 11th place. He might not get that first win of the season in Martinsville, but there isn't any real reason to think that he won't be near the front for most of the day.
Jeff Gordon's season has thus far been plagued by some pretty atrocious luck. From engine failure to gas men penalizing the team, nothing has really gone Gordon's way through the first five races.
Martinsville is the ideal place for Gordon to turn his season around. He has more wins there (seven) than any current Sprint Cup driver. Moreover, he has been racing here as a professional since 1993 and, in that span, has an average finish of 6.9. That is sick.
Barring brake failure, Gordon should be expected to make a run at his first win of the young season.
Antithetical to Gordon's results this year, his Hendrick Motorsports counterpart Jimmie Johnson has enjoyed a couple of lucky breaks.
Besides eventual Auto Club 400 winner Tony Stewart, no driver could have been more happy to see the race ended by rain just after Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet started effusing oil from its rear.
Had the race continued, Johnson probably would have had no shot at 10th place, where he eventually landed after NASCAR ended the day.
Additionally, general consensus concludes that Johnson and his team were fairly lucky to escape stiff penalties for inspection violations at the Daytona 500.
Besides an early exit at the Daytona 500, Johnson has been in the top 10 in every other race.
Statisically, Johnson is basically just as good as Gordon at Martinsville: He has six wins and an average finish of 5.4. Look for him to lead some laps.
It simply cannot be denied that Tony Stewart is on fire right now. Beyond winning seven of the last 15 Sprint Cup races, it just seems like he can do no wrong.
He won the last race at Martinsville in the fall after overtaking Jimmie Johnson very late in the race. He's no stranger to Victory Lane in Martinsville, having visited there three times.
There is no real reason to think that he won't keep rolling.
Brian Vickers will be racing in place of Mark Martin at the Goody's Fast Relief 500. His return to Martinsville, aside from being the second of only a handful of Sprint Cup races in which he will participate this year, should be marked by poise and a solid finish.
In the fall race at Martinsville last year, Vickers was a disaster. His performance may have hindered him from getting sponsorship this year.
After an impressive fifth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway, it seems prudent to say that Vickers can and will repeat his performance at another short track. With his back against the wall, he needs another solid performance if he is to fully revive his career.
No list of Martinsville competitors is complete without Denny Hamlin. He's really only had one poor finish at the tiny track, but that was years ago and accident-related.
He has won at Martinsville on the pole and from as far back as 19th place for a total of four victories and an average finish of 6.5.
He will be dangerous all day.
Kyle Busch's statistics at Martinsville are not particularly jaw-dropping. This is due to a lack of consistency. Though he has never won here, he has a very hot/cold relationship with the tiny track.
He seems just as likely to post a top-five finish as he does somewhere in 20th or worse.
A good omen appeared for Busch last week at the Auto Club 400: With rain looming and the choice to go in and pit under caution, Busch opted to stay out on the track and press his luck.
That decision turned out to yield a second-place finish. He can use that as momentum and inspiration to turn in a solid performance in Virginia.