NASCAR at Martinsville 2015: Complete Preview, Prediction

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2015

NASCAR at Martinsville 2015: Complete Preview, Prediction

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. won for the first time in his career at Martinsville in last year's Chase race there.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. won for the first time in his career at Martinsville in last year's Chase race there.Associated Press

    NASCAR begins Round 3 of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in Sunday's Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

    With the elimination of four drivers at Talladega—Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman—the Chase field is now pared to half the number of drivers (eight) that started the Chase six weeks ago (16).

    Joey Logano swept Round 2 of the Chase with consecutive wins at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Can he continue that run this weekend? Is he the driver to beat for the championship?

    All of the eight remaining drivers are tied at 4,000 points each heading into Martinsville.

    Here’s how Sunday’s race shapes up.

By the Numbers: Martinsville Speedway

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500

    Place: Martinsville Speedway

    Date: Sunday, Nov. 1

    Time: 1:15 p.m. (ET)

    TV: NBCSN, 12 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

    Distance: 500 laps, 263 miles

    Defending winner: Dale Earnhardt won at Martinsville for the first time in his career in last year’s Chase race. Denny Hamlin won there this past spring.

    Youngest winner: Richard Petty on April 10, 1960 (22 years, 9 months, 8 days)

    Oldest winner: Harry Gant on Sept. 22, 1991 (51 years, 8 months, 12 days).

    Youngest pole winner: Ricky Rudd on April 26, 1981 (24 years, 7 months, 14 days).

    Oldest pole winner: Morgan Shepherd on April 26, 1987 (45 years, 6 months, 14 days).

    Most wins: all-time—Richard Petty (15); active—Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (8 each)

    Most poles: all-time—Darrell Waltrip (8); active—Jeff Gordon (7)

    Most top-fives: all-time—Richard Petty (30); active—Jeff Gordon (28)

    Most top-10s: all-time—Richard Petty (37); active—Jeff Gordon (36)

    Lead lap finishes: all-time and active—Jeff Gordon (36)

    Laps completed: all-time—Richard Petty (27,891); active—Ken Schrader (24,971)

    Laps led: all-time—Cale Yarborough (3,851); active—Jeff Gordon (3,744)

    Most race starts at Martinsville: all-time—Richard Petty (67); active—Ken Schrader (54)

    Race record: Jeff Gordon (82.223 mph) on Sept. 22, 1996

    Qualifying record: Joey Logano (100.201 mph) on March 28, 2014

    Best average start: all-time—Fonty Flock (3.125); active—Jeff Gordon (7.244)

    Best average finish: all-time—Dick Hutcherson (3.800); active—Jeff Gordon (6.889)

    TRACK NOTES:

    * Total number of races at Martinsville: 133
    * Total number of different pole winners in Martinsville history: 59
    * Races won from pole: 21
    * Last race won from pole: Jimmie Johnson on April 7, 2013
    * Number of race winners at Martinsville: 48
    * DNFs (most): all-time—J.D. McDuffie (22); active – Morgan Shepherd (15)
    * DNFs (least): all-time and active—Jeff Gordon (0 in 45 starts)


    Statistical information provided by NASCAR Media Relations

Key Storylines

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    Mark Almond/Associated Press

    Is it payback time? 

    Drivers that were eliminated from the Chase after Talladega may have Kevin Harvick in their sights. Matt Kenseth may have Joey Logano in his sights for what happened a week earlier at Kansas. And let’s not forget some of the season-long festering issues between drivers. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but Martinsville is a perfect place to extract revenge—especially by a former Chaser on a remaining Chaser—because it’s so short and tight that you can’t help but use the “but it was an accident” excuse, and you’ll probably get away with it.

    What does NASCAR do about retaliation?

    Will NASCAR have to be extremely vigilant in the last four races to prevent obvious retaliation? If it appears an incident was intentional, how will NASCAR officials respond? Will they let things slide or will they assess big fines and other penalties?

    For Dale Jr., is it second verse, same as the first?

    After wanting one of Martinsville's coveted trophies—a grandfather clock—Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally broke through for his first win at the circuit during last year’s Chase race. There’s a bit of irony heading into this race: Earnhardt won at Martinsville last year after being eliminated the week before at Talladega. He was eliminated again at Talladega on Sunday. Could it be a case of deja vu for Junior?

    There’s still plenty of incentive for Denny Hamlin

    Even though Hamlin was eliminated after Talladega (a prediction we made here in last week’s preview), he still has plenty to race and compete for. The 34-year-old can still have a good run in these last four races. And let’s not forget that, including his win this past spring at Martinsville, he’s now won there five times. You can bet he’ll be looking to make it six on Sunday.

    How will teams adapt to eliminations

    Joe Gibbs Racing had all four of its drivers in the Chase up to Talladega. Now they have just two (Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch). Hendrick Motorsports started the Chase with three entrants; it now has just one (four-time Sprint Cup champ Jeff Gordon). Will it make a significant difference to drivers that are still in the Chase, while some of their teammates aren’t any longer?

Drivers to Watch

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    Mark Almond/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart

    This may be the last shot Stewart has at a win this season. When he first started racing at Martinsville, Stewart hated the place. But he eventually figured out the little bullring and has three wins there. Basically, Stewart has to drive it like he stole it—and provide backup, if needed, to teammate Kevin Harvick, who could be a marked man for retaliation. I can just hear Tony say now, “Follow me, Kevin. I’ll blaze the way.”

    Danica Patrick

    I may be the only person in the world who believes this, but I’ve said ever since she came to NASCAR that Danica Patrick’s first career Sprint Cup win will be on a short track. She’s had some moments at Martinsville that lead me to believe she could be a big surprise there this Sunday. Patrick has nothing to lose and could wind up being a big help to her other Stewart-Haas teammates.

    Kyle Busch

    While he just barely advanced to Round 3 of the Chase, the point is the younger Busch brother made it nonetheless. He loves short tracks having grown up on one in his hometown of Las Vegas, and that could serve him well at Martinsville. There’s also added incentive: If he wins, he punches his ticket to become one of the final four drivers who will battle it out for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.

    Matt Kenseth

    When you have five wins and were unceremoniously eliminated from the Chase, you likely not only have payback on your mind, but also winning. Kenseth is a mild-mannered driver most of the time, but when he gets ticked, he drives ticked—and that’s a good thing. I’m thinking that if anyone else wins Sunday, they’re going to have to get through Kenseth—and that’s not going to be an easy thing to do.

    Kevin Harvick

    Harvick has had to battle his way back twice in the Chase thus far to advance to the following round. Regardless of what he did or didn’t do at Talladega (depending upon your point of view), he knows what’s at stake in Round 3. He can’t afford to try and wait to win at Phoenix, the final race of the round. He needs to go for the jugular right away at Martinsville and clinch that automatic berth into the championship round.

Favorites

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin

    When you’ve won five times at a track, it’s hard not to classify you as a favorite. And while Hamlin was eliminated from the Chase Sunday at Talladega, he still has a lot to race for, including more wins. He could be a great spoiler in the Chase. When you’re in the position he’s in now, you go for what you can achieve even if it won’t take you any closer to your ultimate goal: Your first Sprint Cup championship. While Hamlin will have to wait until next year for another title chance, he can definitely have a significant impact in Round 3, starting at one of his favorite and most successful tracks.

    Joey Logano

    After sweeping Round 2, there’s no reason to think Joey Logano can’t continue his winning streak in the first race of Round 3. Right now, with four races left in the season, Logano is the odds-on favorite to win the championship. It’s his to lose—and we don’t see him doing that—unless Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick or someone else “accidentally” runs into him.

    Jimmie Johnson

    The six-time champ is in the same boat as Denny Hamlin. He’s out of the Chase, but can still have a significant impact in the way it ultimately plays out. Johnson is tied with teammate Jeff Gordon for most wins at Martinsville among active drivers (eight). Johnson can do a lot to help Gordon in his championship quest, while at the same time, preventing other drivers from getting the Sprint Cup trophy.

    Jeff Gordon

    The lone remaining Chase-eligible driver for Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon has suddenly become a possible championship contender in his final season as a Sprint Cup driver. It’s not like he wasn’t championship-worthy up to this point, but Gordon hasn’t done a whole lot compared to other drivers. He’s still looking for his first win of the season, which could very well come at Martinsville, where he has eight. If he continues the HMS run of success and luck at the paper-clip sized track, it would immediately propel him into the four-driver, winner-take-all championship round.

    Kurt Busch

    The elder Busch brother has become my dark horse pick to win the championship. He won the first Chase back in 2004, and despite a rough start to this season (suspended by NASCAR for the first three races), he has done everything needed to not only make the Chase, but also to advance now to Round 3. He’s a past winner at Martinsville, was raised on short-track racing and could very easily steal a win on Sunday, putting him into the final race of the season.

Dark-Horse Pick: Greg Biffle

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    Jim Cole/Associated Press

    Yes, I’m picking Biffle as a dark-horse candidate once again.

    Given how he almost won at Talladega—a necessary late fuel stop cost him a chance at victoryBiffle has definitely seen a spark in performance in the last several races.

    Even though Martinsville has historically been one of his worst tracks (just five top-10s in 25 starts), Biffle still loves to mix it up and beat and bang with fellow drivers.

    If his team can come up with a better fuel-mileage strategy at Martinsville than it had at Talladega, don’t be surprised to see Biffle and the No. 16 in Victory Lane for the first time ever on Sunday afternoon.

And the Winner Is: Jeff Gordon

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The races are counting down toward the end of Jeff Gordon’s career.

    The 44-year-old has given everything he can to win thus far this season, particularly at places he’s dominated in his career—including Daytona, Sonoma, Indianapolis and others—but he still hasn’t managed to hit pay dirt.

    If Gordon is going to win at any of the four remaining tracks in this year’s Chase, I truly believe Martinsville gives him the best opportunity to do just that.

    And that’s not to mention he’ll immediately advance to the championship-deciding Round 4.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski