There are only five drivers with a realistic shot at winning Sunday's Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.
Perhaps more so than any other track, it is possible for a driver to get dialed in at Martinsville and dominate the track for years on end. Racing at the paperclip-shaped half-mile Martinsville track is far from boring, but over the years, the leaderboard has been predictable more often than not.
For that reason, there are only a few drivers who can hope to contend for the win on Sunday, barring a crazy flurry of green-white-checkered runs at the end.
Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have dominated the track in recent years. No other driver has won since the spring of 2006. Johnson has won five races during that stretch, while Hamlin has taken home the grandfather clock trophy four times, including the last three races.
Johnson and Hamlin have also combined for three runner-up finishes in those nine races. They have finished outside the top five just once each, and never outside the top 10. In fact, Johnson has finished in the top 10 at Martinsville for 17 consecutive races.
Despite the recent exclusivity in the Martinsville win club by Johnson and Hamlin, there are three other drivers with a clear shot at taking the checkered flag on Sunday.
Jeff Gordon had scored 11 consecutive top-five's at Martinsville before last fall's race, when he led 56 laps but finished 20th. Gordon leads active drivers with seven track victories, but hasn't won at Martinsville since sweeping the 2005 races. However, you can count on Gordon to be a factor at Martinsville.
Kyle Busch has never won a Cup race at Martinsville, but he has had strong runs there in the past, making him a threat to win at any track, any time, in any type of car. Busch has finished in the top five in half of the previous ten Martinsville Sprint Cup events, and no one would be surprised to see him in Victory Lane Sunday afternoon.
Finally, Tony Stewart is a two-time Martinsville winner. In fact, he was the last driver to win at the track before Johnson and Hamlin took control. Stewart has looked strong so far in 2011, and he is a legitimate threat to return to winning form at the half-mile Martinsville track.
If things really get crazy on Sunday, dark horses for the race include Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya. Each of these drivers has had strong Martinsville runs recently, but with the exception of Martin (in 1992 and 2000), none have taken the checkered flag at Martinsville.
For any of these drivers to have much of a chance of beating the likes of Hamlin and Johnson, they will either have to hit on an incredible setup and run a perfect race, or be in position to capitalize in the event of mayhem at the end of the race.
But the odds are that when the smoke clears and 500 laps of beating and banging are over, a familiar face will be celebrating in Victory Lane Sunday afternoon.