As we inch closer to the end of the season, NASCAR is taking its second trip to the paper-clip track known as Martinsville.
It should be short-track racing at its finest, bumping, banging and even some tempers flaring as these 10 drivers try to be in the running to win this race in the end.
The Chase standings didn't really change coming out of Kansas, and Jimmie Johnson, who had a dominate care, ran into some bad luck that kept him exactly seven points behind Brad Keselowski. Martinsville, though, is another track where Johnson thrives.
Johnson isn't the only one who shines at Martinsville. Denny Hamlin is another driver to keep an eye on this Sunday.
If the Chase standings are going to change significantly, it’s going to happen this Sunday at Martinsville.
Here are 10 drivers who will be in the running this Sunday during the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his comeback after sitting out two races due to a concussion, everyone will be watching him—especially after the solid performance Regan Smith put on last week in the No. 88 car.
Still, Jr. Nation must be happy now that Dale is healthy and ready for short-track racing this Sunday.
So, with Dale medically cleared, just how good does he race at Martinsville?
Over the last four years, the worst finish Earnhardt had was seventh place. While he's never won at Martinsville, Earnhardt Jr. tends to find himself closer to the front at the end of the race, which is why he will be in the running on Sunday.
Finally getting back behind the wheel of the 88 may play into Earnhardt's success on Sunday. With teammates like Johnson and Gordon as well, who have both been great at Martinsville, it's hard to see how Earnhardt won't be running up front at some point on Sunday.
Earnhardt has been quiet since being cleared of his concussion.
Still, with a healthy Dale Jr. finally getting back into the 88, expect him to make a run for the front during the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville.
Kyle Busch might not seem like a driver who would be in the running at Martinsville. To say Busch struggles here would be an understatement.
His best finish at this paper-clip track was third last season, but he's also had some horrible finishes. Busch has improved over the years at Martinsville, and with a teammate like Denny Hamlin, who has been so dominate at this track, Busch has had some help along the way.
Busch was quoted over at Motorsport.com as saying:
I think the biggest strides of improvement have come from just working with Denny and really getting his knowledge of how to get around the place. He’s very good there. Learning his technique a little bit and getting to drive his cars. When I would go there years ago, we would run my setup and kind of go on our own way. But, more recently, it’s just been to put in whatever the 11 (Hamlin) has got and then figure it out. That’s really helped us.
Given Hamlin's success at the track, Busch seems to have the right idea in mind if he plans on winning a Martinsville race.
He has improved at this track over the last couple of years, and it has shown. Expect Busch to keep improving and be in the running on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth is another driver who has never managed to win at Martinsville. Overall, Kenseth has three top-five finishes, eight top-10s and an average finish of 16.0.
Kenseth at this point in the chase has nothing to lose. He's also managed to prove that he is far from done when it comes to winning. He may sit ninth in the standings, but he's won two races so far in the Chase.
Matt has what a lot of other drivers lack when they get set to race on Sunday: momentum.
That could be what Kenseth needs to get his first win at this paper-clip track. He had a difficult start to the Chase, but he has taken off as it has come to a close.
"We were a little off as a group," Kenseth said via Ford Racing. "We made a few mistakes we typically never make and have had some other problems that cost us some finishes. It feels good to get here, have a fast car, have everything happen right, be able to get the win."
As Kenseth gets set for Martinsville this Sunday, don't be surprised to see No. 17 in the running for another victory.
Clint Bowyer's track record at Martinsville is nothing special. His highest finish was fifth in 2009. Bowyer, however, is on a bit of a roll.
Last week at Kansas, for example, Clint finished in sixth. Kansas is a track where Bowyer tends to struggle.
Sitting fourth in the standings, 25 points behind Brad Keselowski, Bowyer clearly proved with his Charlotte win, and his solid Kansas performance, that he is ready to make a serious run at the championship.
With only four races left, Martinsville is a place where Bowyer needs to make a move. Hamlin and Johnson will probably be running in front. Keselowski might be able to make a push toward the front as well, so if Bowyer hopes to come out of Martinsville still in a good position to do something, he needs to be in the front with them.
He was set in a position to win the April race, but during a green-white checkered flag, Bowyer went low to try to pass Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson—but instead of passing, the three drivers ended up colliding.
As they get set for Sunday's race, Bowyer is going to need to beat the three drivers in front of him if he hopes to win the Sprint Cup championship.
"We want to beat the No. 11 and 48 at their own game," Bowyer's crew chief, Bryan Pattie, said via Motorsport.com.
Bowyer has to close the gap even more at Martinsville. In order to do that, he needs to make sure he is in the running to win the race.
Tony Stewart won this October race last season by taking the lead from Jimmie Johnson with three laps to go.
What makes Smoke's victory even more impressive, though, is how he managed to do it all the way from 20th position with less than 85 laps to go.
Stewart was quoted over at Motorsport.com as saying:
We didn’t have the best race car that day, by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew to get it as good as they could get it. I was also the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that.
He would end up second in the standings last season, and Martinsville was the race that propelled Smoke to make his run for the championship.
This season is a bit different, with Stewart sitting in seventh place, 47 points behind the points leader, Brad Keselowski.
While Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have been the dominate names when it comes to the "Paper Clip," Stewart has proven that he can run extremely strong at this track. He will more than likely make himself known as he charges for the front like he did last year.
Ryan Newman hasn't really done anything special this year, besides winning the first Martinsville race.
In April, Newman was able to take advantage of a late race caution and steal the victory. He didn't really run up front during the long stretches of the race, but he managed to get out in front at the very end.
Newman was quoted over at Motorsport.com as saying:
There was a huge sense of relief when I saw that checkered flag, but the emotion was, man, we did it. I’ve tried so many times there, and I enjoy short-track racing. I enjoy Martinsville, and I didn’t used to. So it made it more sweet for me than maybe another racetrack.
Sometimes, that's all you need to be in the running.
The Rocket has had mixed success when it comes to this paper-clip track. He's managed to finish in the top 10 several times, but has also finished in the top 20 as well.
He was running well at Kansas last week, but when he got into the back of Kyle Busch, Newman ended up taking himself out.
With the new addition of crew chief Matt Borland, Newman might be able to turn around his poor season and be the one driver sitting outside the chase to win a race.
Newman and Borland are good friends, and both have engineering degrees. They have had success together and hope to continue their success in these last four races.
With his win in the April Martinsville race, and the addition of crew chief Matt Borland, Ryan Newman will be a factor this Sunday.
Martinsville hasn't been kind to Brad Keselowski. His best finish has been ninth, which came during the April race this season.
For the Blue Deuce, Martinsville should be looked at as a true champion test. If Keselowski can't finish strong, he could easily lose his point lead on Jimmie Johnson—even Denny Hamlin might make up a lot of ground.
Brad needs to be in the running for Martinsville. With two dominate short-track drivers nipping at his heels to take his point lead away, he needs to finish better than both of them.
The problem is, though, both Hamlin and Johnson seem to finish first a lot at this track. If Keselowski wants to prove he is a champion, beating both Johnson and Hamlin at their own short-track game would prove it.
Otherwise, Brad may end up like so many others, falling second to Jimmie Johnson when the NASCAR season ends.
Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, was quoted over at Motorsport.com as saying:
We have a brand-new Miller Lite Dodge this weekend and I’m excited about its potential. We were able to test at Rockingham and came away very pleased...It’s still Martinsville so anything can happen, but Brad likes racing there and we are a confident team heading into this weekend.
Look for Keselowski to be in the running at Martinsville, because if he's not, then he more than likely won’t be the points leader when this race is over.
Jeff Gordon is familiar with Martinsville. He boasts several victories at this track, along with several top-five and top-10 finishes. He hasn't won here since 2005, but he’s had 11 top-five finishes since his last victory at the Paper Clip.
Gordon should be expected to be in the running at Martinsville.
Gordon was quoted over at Motorsport.com as saying:
I can't wait for the race this weekend. It all comes down to preparation. Hendrick Motorsports gives me such great race cars that it allows me to just go focus on my line and my entry speed. I can focus on how we can make the car go faster, how I can get back to the throttle sooner and how I can make the tires last over long runs. I'm already dreaming about it.
Jeff Gordon has been a driver who comes as close to perfection as any driver can at short-track racing. While he hasn't done much so far in the Chase, and hasn't won this race since 2005, Gordon should never be counted out.
He's managed to find himself running in the front almost every time he races at Martinsville. He dominated here earlier in the season, leading more than 300 laps. Overall Gordon has led 3,423 laps at Martinsville.
Clearly Gordon is going to be in the running on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin is another driver who has been dominate at Martinsville over the last couple of years.
Boasting four wins at this track, five top-five finishes and three top-10s, Hamlin is clearly one to watch for as Martinsville kicks off this Sunday.
Unlike fellow Martinsville dominator Jimmie Johnson, this race is a must-win for Hamlin. He sits 20 points behind Keselowski in the standings, and if he hopes to make ground on the leader, he's going to have to out-race Johnson.
With only a handful of races left in the Chase, if Denny fails to take advantage of his dominance at this track, his chances of passing both Johnson and Keselowski in points will diminish greatly.
Hamlin has been solid throughout the Chase, and given his history at Martinsville, he will more than likely be in the running.
He was quoted over at examiner.com as saying:
This year, the spring race is the one race where we did not run well. We had some setup issues that we found in the car afterwards, after the race was over, some mistakes that we made with our setup, basically putting the wrong pieces in the wrong places. Honestly, we look forward to going back. Especially, as good as our short-track program’s been.
Hamlin finished sixth in the spring race, which to him is clearly not good enough.
Even with this dominance, though, can he remain calm with everything on the line, or will he fold to the pressure?
Hamlin still has a great chance of winning the championship. With four races left, he can still make up the 20 points he needs on Keselowski. With such tough competition this year, it might be hard for Hamlin to win this race—but he will definitely be in the running when the checkered flag waves.
To say Jimmie Johnson has been dominate at Martinsville would be an understatement.
Johnson has six Sprint Cup wins at this track, and he knows the only way to pull ahead in points is going to be winning No. 7. He was quoted over at AOL sports as saying:
We’ve got to be up front. To a certain degree, I can just focus on the 11 (of Hamlin) and the two (of Keselowski) at this point, I would say. Maybe the 15 (of Bowyer). So you work down from 42 others to three or four others I really need to outrun. With Denny’s performance at Martinsville, to outrun him, I think you’re going to have to win the race. It’s going to be a fun weekend, for sure.
This is what makes Johnson so dangerous, and a driver who will, without a doubt, be in the running at Martinsville. Of course, he has been dominate there, but he understands how good his competition is as well.
He has had his fair share of victories in the October Martinsville races (winning three), and even last year Johnson managed to finish second in this race.
Will this be the only time for Jimmie Johnson to strike in the Chase? With his ability to succeed at any track, he will still have time to catch up to Keselowski if he doesn't do it at Martinsville.
Johnson is so dominate here, though, that he has a great chance of passing Keselowski in the standings, or closing the gap on him even more.
He is one of the top drivers when it comes to Martinsville, so of course you should expect Jimmie Johnson to be in the running.