NASCAR: Could There Be a First-Time Martinsville Winner Sunday?
There are quite a few elite Sprint Cup drivers who have never won at Martinsville Speedway.
In fact, only seven current Cup drivers have won at Martinsville: Jeff Gordon (seven wins), Jimmie Johnson (six wins), Denny Hamlin (four wins), Tony Stewart (two wins), Mark Martin (two wins), Jeff Burton (one win) and Kurt Busch (one win).
Such a short list of previous Martinsville winners leaves some top names as hopefuls for gaining their first win at the track.
I have identified the top contenders as well as a few dark-horse candidates to take their first Martinsville checkered flag. Which drivers could pick up their first grandfather clock trophy on Sunday? Read on to find out.
The list of top challengers starts with Denny Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch.
It is surprising that Kyle Busch has never won at Martinsville. He has five top fives at the track, the only track along with Charlotte where he has that many top fives with no wins.
Busch has at least two wins at the other two short tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, including five at fellow half-miler Bristol. He was strong in both Martinsville races in 2010 and finished fourth in the fall, so don't be surprised if Busch is celebrating in Victory Lane at the end of the race.
"Happy" Harvick has never had a Martinsville DNF in 19 career starts. Despite staying out of trouble, he has just one top five to go along with eight top 10s.
Harvick is one of several drivers who are solid at Martinsville but haven't quite totally figured out the quirky half-mile paperclip-shaped track.
Still, Harvick has led over 300 laps at Martinsville, including 57 last spring from the pole, so he is certainly capable of pulling off the win if he hits his stride at the right time. He finished third at the track last fall and will be looking to get his second win in a row after his victory at Fontana last week.
Ryan Newman has six top fives and nine top 10s at Martinsville. He is always strong on short tracks (11 top 10s at both Bristol and Richmond, including a Richmond win) and flat tracks like Phoenix and Loudon (Newman has wins at both tracks).
Always a strong qualifier, Newman has three career Martinsville poles and an average start of 9.1. However, despite starting up front, he has led only 138 laps in 18 races at the track.
Newman led 32 laps at Martinsville last fall. However, he eventually finished 30th in that race, which broke a streak of three straight top 10s. Look for him to be back with a vengeance.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martinsville is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s third-best track in terms of average finish, with eight top fives and 11 top 10s in 22 career races. He had a strong run here last fall, finishing seventh while leading 90 laps.
That race was no fluke, as Junior has led a total of 848 laps at the tricky half-mile track, so he knows what it takes to run up front at Martinsville.
If he can keep his car clean and be up front near the end, Junior will be willing to do what it takes to get the No. 88 car back into Victory Lane.
Joey Logano surprised many observers with strong performances at Martinsville last season. He finished runner-up to teammate Denny Hamlin in the spring and followed that up with a sixth-place run in the fall race.
Logano has never had a DNF in four Martinsville races, and if things go his way, he could sneak through for a Martinsville win.
Although he has yet to lead a lap at Martinsville, Logano seems to have figured the place out by following Hamlin around the track. It could pay off on Sunday.
Carl Edwards has never led a lap at Martinsville, one of two tracks where he has never led a lap.
However, he has never had a DNF in 13 races and has been running reasonably well there lately, with two eighth place finishes last year.
Edwards is the hottest driver in NASCAR, but is unlikely to break through for a Martinsville victory this Sunday.
Winning at Martinsville requires a perfect set-up to run the only line that works. Edwards hasn't had it in the past and it is unlikely he'll get it figured out enough to find Victory Lane.
Matt Kenseth nearly won this race last spring. On a green-white-checkered restart, he shoved leader Jeff Gordon up the track and assumed the lead.
However, Gordon immediately returned the favor, stating after the race that whatever happened, he wasn't going to allow the man who denied him the victory the chance to win.
Martinsville is not one of Kenseth's better tracks statistically, but given his current winless drought and how close he came to winning last spring, taking the checkered flag has to be on Kenseth's mind.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Juan Pablo Montoya has finished in the top 20 in all but one of his eight Martinsville races, and has never failed to finish the race.
His highest Martinsville finish is third, back in the fall race in 2009. Montoya has led 46 laps at the track, the sixth-most laps he has led at any Sprint Cup venue.
Montoya's road racing background helps with the constant braking required at Martinsville, and he or fellow road-racer Marcos Ambrose are capable of putting together a solid run here on Sunday.
The final driver with a chance to pick up his first Martinsville grandfather clock trophy is Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer has finished in the top ten in five of his last seven Martinsville races. Despite that consistency, he has just one top five, a fifth in 2009.
Still, Bowyer has shown he can stay out of trouble even with all the beating and banging that takes place at Martinsville. He could be a factor at the end of the race, especially if he can improve on his average starting position of 18.9.
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