Martinsville Speedway is the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup Series battle. The Tums Fast Relief 500 will open the second half of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as three drivers—Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick—remain the only viable candidates for the championship right now.
We’re due for a great battle this weekend, as Johnson and Hamlin are the two best active drivers at Martinsville. They’ve split the last eight races at the track among them, with Johnson holding a five to three advantage but Hamlin taking the last two.
But of course, if you’ve been reading, I’m not allowed to make either of them my lead pick this weekend. I took Hamlin at Loudon (second place finish) and Johnson last week at Charlotte (a third place run). So, who else can I rely on this weekend?
Thank heaven there’s a third pick that’s just as viable. Jeff Gordon was the original Martinsville superstar, with seven wins and 29 top 10s in 35 career starts there thus far. His average finish is an impeccable 6.7. He’s led at least 36 laps in his past eight Martinsville starts, and has led at least one circuit in 27 of those events.
That’s about as reliable as it gets.
As for a dark horse, I’m looking at Ryan Newman. Newman was never that strong a Martinsville driver during his years at Penske Racing, but he’s never finished worse than seventh at the track with Stewart-Haas Racing. Last year, he led 23 laps in this race from the pole. Earlier this year, he ran a respectable fourth.
Three more, even though two are obvious:
Johnson is basically an improved version of his mentor. He’s got 16 top 10s in 17 starts to go along with those five wins. In eight of the last nine races at the track, he’s led 42 laps or more, the lone exception coming this spring.
Hamlin’s a Virginia native that always has the motivation to do well in his home state. In 10 races, he has three wins, seven top five runs and nine top 10s. In each of the past three Martinsville events, he’s led at least 172 laps.
This is Hamlin’s best chance to reclaim the Chase points lead—even though it’s also his rival’s best track, Hamlin outscored Johnson by 57 points last time at Martinsville. The same occurrence this time would give him the lead into next week’s unpredictable race at Talladega.
Finally, think about picking up Kasey Kahne for this weekend. No, he’s not exactly a Martinsville superstar, and never has been. But now that he’s free from Richard Petty Motorsports, don’t be surprised if Red Bull’s newest driver pulls something out to try and stick it to his former team.