Paperclip Perfection: Who Has the Best Chance To Win Martinsville?
It's a track where close racing is required and banging fenders is part of the deal. No car leaves the track without a donut on the side or sheet metal not damaged.
Martinsville Speedway has been known as a track where muscle is more important than momentum. If a driver can bang his way to the lead, so be it. If the driver getting hit is angry at the move, unfortunately it is just part of the deal.
NASCAR descends on the "Paper Clip" this weekend for race No. 6 of the Chase. The drivers at the top of the standings are heading in as the favorite, and may put a bit of a gap on the rest of the field. At the same time, drivers outside the Chase are looking to steal some of the thunder from those contending for a championship.
We saw last weekend that it can happen, and short track racing often provides us with many moments where the most unexpected driver could be the one celebrating.
So, without further hesitation, let's take a look at 10 drivers who we all should keep our eyes on come Sunday afternoon in the Tums Fast Relief 500.
Calling this driver a favorite at Martinsville is a very light understatement. With the points lead, Jimmie Johnson is looking to extend the gap between his competition at a track where he is simply dominant.
Look at the statistics: six wins, 12 top fives, 16 top 10s and an average finish of 5.4. How can you not keen an eye on the No. 48?
The only thing he has against him is that it has been over a year since he saw victory at Martinsville.
But chances are, he's got a good chance of breaking that streak.
With two straight wins at this track, the No. 11 crew is looking to make a three-peat of it Sunday.
The Virginia native has been downright dominant when NASCAR has been to his home state this year. So far, Hamlin has won two of the three events in Virginia, the latest being in Richmond in September. His crew knows what to do at this track to get the job done.
At the same time, he's in a spot where he needs to begin turning up the heat on getting the championship. There is no time to be conservative anymore.
Five races remain in the Chase, and if he keeps playing a game of "no mistakes, no risks" then the championship dream is gone. He needs to begin his Chase of Johnson now.
Otherwise, he'll be on the outside looking in on yet another Johnson victory celebration.
Now here's a driver who could certainly be one to watch.
Tony Stewart has come on strong the last few weeks in the Chase, marching his way up to sixth in the standings. Although his chances of getting a championship may not happen, a victory is not out of the question.
Martinsville is a relatively good track for Stewart. Two wins, eight top fives and 12 top 10s put him in the running for a shot at a trophy.
More than anything, he wants to forget about the last time he raced on a flat track. Remember, New Hampshire is almost a bigger version of Martinsville, and he came just a mile short of victory there.
This time, don't expect any fuel gambles on the part of Stewart. But do expect a lot of bumping on his part.
Before teammate Johnson began dominating at the 0.526-mile short track, all eyes were on the No. 24 Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon was the one to beat.
Here's the straight-up fact: This track is Gordon's best opportunity to put his car and team in victory lane. Talladega is too unpredictable, Texas hasn't been his best track, Phoenix is a sub-par course for him and he's never won at Homestead. If this team wants to see a checkered flag, this is the race to do it.
Seven wins, 23 top fives, 29 top 10s, an average finish of 6.7, and he's been in the lead at least once in the last 27 races at the track.
Needless to say, this is a car even the No. 48 is circling as a threat.
The National Guard/DuPont Chevrolet is going to try everything it can to win this race. It's all or nothing for Gordon, bottom line.
Hamlin is not the only Virginian with a chance at victory Sunday. Another Richard Childress Racing driver could be on the radar for many teams.
Nicknamed "The Mayor," Jeff Burton is the other Virginia native who could see victory Sunday afternoon. The track is one of the best for Burton, who has one win, 10 top fives and 14 top 10s at the 0.526-mile oval.
He is also one of the most respected drivers in the garage, even at a track where bumping is almost necessary. That could be a compliment or a curse come Martinsville. There's no question that if need be, Burton will bump a driver out of the way to get the win.
Who that driver will be is undetermined.
But, watch out for the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet. He could be doing some heavy lifting after 500 miles.
Yes, this is not one of Harvick's best tracks, as he only has seven top 10 finishes to his credit.
But, at the same time, he's in the same situation as Hamlin is heading into Martinsville. The difference is Harvick is running hard and isn't holding anything back. Sure he falls back at some point. But when the race gets down to crunch time, there is no one better than Harvick in getting to the front.
It's very appropriate that he also has the name "Mr. Where'd He Come From" because we say that every week with the No. 29 car.
It will be interesting to see how Harvick will handle the short track, because he cannot afford to fall behind as some of his competitors have already.
Can you have a better sleeper than Kahne right now? Think about it, everyone has their eyes on him after his split from RPM five races early. Now, all eyes are on him in his new ride with Red Bull Racing.
This is no joke, he could be the ultimate underdog at Martinsville, and not just because of all the media hype in the last 24 hours.
Truth be told, Martinsville is not one of Kahne's better tracks. Since 2004, he only has one top five and two top 10s here. But, at the same time, this season has been one of struggle, frustration and ultimately anger. There is no way the Kahne we've seen through the first 31 races this year is going to be at Martinsville.
No, you are going to see a Kahne who is revitalized because a huge weight is off his shoulders, and he's now with a team that has proved to be one of the strongest on the season.
Could Kahne be the ultimate spoiler?
The last two weeks have been incredible for the No. 5 car and Mark Martin. After missing out on the Chase following a year where he finished runner-up, the veteran driver has shown he can run up front and have a chance to win.
Martinsville is another track where the savvy driver could take away some of the focus on the Chase and put it on him. Martin has two victories at Martinsville, the last coming in 2000. He also has 11 top fives and 23 top 10s at the "Paper Clip" and averages a 13.3 finish.
Even though this season has not been the best for the 51-year-old driver, all is not lost. He still has one more year of full-time driving for Hendrick and wants to leave on a high note.
There's certainly a lot to look forward to next year, but Martin still wants to win. Martinsville is certainly his best opportunity in the rest of the season.
Who is the driver that has the momentum right now? That is an easy answer because it's someone NOT in the Chase.
Who can deny that this season has been a rousing success for the new driver of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet. It started off with a victory in the Daytona 500, and then followed up with a win at the Brickyard. Last Saturday night, McMurray got his third win of the year at Charlotte.
That's one year, three big-market tracks and three huge victories. The best year of McMurray's career won't end with a title, but it will end with a smile.
Martinsville may not be one of the biggest markets for NASCAR, but it's a historical track for the sport. Any track with a vast history has shown to be strong for this team, and Martinsville is no exception.
McMurray only averages a 16th-place finish at the track, but right now that's not on his mind. Victory certainly is.
Keep an eye on that bright orange Chevrolet. He could play spoiler one more time.
One driver who has shown he enjoys flat tracks is Ryan Newman. He ran well when the modifieds raced this year at Martinsville, and is very good at New Hampshire and Phoenix.
Martinsville is a track that Newman has yet to win at, but he has come close. He's finished in the top five six different times, with his best being a runner-up in 2007.
Newman has a win this year at Phoenix, which is a flat, sweeping speedway. Martinsville may not have sweeping corners, but he certainly can get the job done.
Tornadoes will be on the car again this weekend, just like in Phoenix, and that could mean he will be on the throttle for a win.
Watch for the No. 39 to be strong, just like his teammate.