With 60% of the 2011 Chase For The Sprint Cup completed, I think it'd be safe to say that 60% of the Chase field no longer has a chance at winning this year's championship. The only drivers that I see having a shot of hoisting the title at Homestead-Miami at season's end are the "Fab Five" in the points right now: Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, and Kevin Harvick. A minor slip up by any of those drivers this weekend at Martinsville Speedway could take them right out of the equation as well. The Series will resume its 'normal' schedule of the 2011 season this weekend, with two practice sessions being held on Friday afternoon followed by qualifying on Saturday. The Tums Fast Relief 500 will start around 1:45 p.m. eastern time on Sunday.
During The Last Race At Martinsville...Despite only leading nine laps, although it is his forte, Kevin Harvick beat the fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for his second win of this season in April. Kyle Busch, who led 151 of the 500 laps that day, finished 3rd, while Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5. Pole-sitter Jamie McMurray, who led 31 laps that afternoon, finished 7th.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Tums Fast Relief 500:
*Chase participants marked in red*
1. Kyle Busch - Now that Kyle Busch's chances for the championship are pretty much finished, I expect "Rowdy" to go all out for victories, and although he has never won at Martinsville in thirteen career starts, I think it's possible this weekend. In the last four races at "The Paperclip," Busch has notched three top 5s, and he led 151 laps here in April (despite only leading 120 in his previous twelve attempts). As usual, though, Kyle is feast or famine at this track: he has six career top 5s compared to five career finishes outside of the top 20. In the last four races here, though, Kyle Busch hasn't had a driver rating lower than 91.6, and I fully expect him to challenge for the win on Sunday afternoon.
2. Jimmie Johnson - If JJ is going to have any shot at all in getting back in this championship hunt, he must have a good race this Sunday and hope the others catch the bad luck bug. The first part is very possible, but it's the second that worries me. In the last five races at Martinsville, Johnson hasn't finished worse than 11th and has an average driver rating of 117.2 (second-best in the series). Over his entire career here (nineteen races), Jimmie has ended up in victory lane six times and has an average finish of 5.6. He finished 35th here in his first start at "The Paperclip," but in the eighteen races since then, "Five Time" has led 1,616 laps and his worst finish has been 11th. It's safe to say that the #48 should be pretty good this weekend.
3. Kevin Harvick - What's interesting about Kevin Harvick is that he wasn't really great at Martinsville Speedway until recently. As you probably remember, "Happy" won the race here in April, and in this race last season he finished 3rd despite starting 36th. In his last eight starts here, Harvick has seven finishes of 12th or better, which is pretty good considering in his first eight starts here, Kevin had just two finishes in the top 10. Harvick's career average finish of 16.5 at "The Paperclip" shouldn't scare you away, and he should improve it on Sunday.
4. Jeff Gordon - Jeff Gordon is pretty much a lock for fantasy owners when it comes to a race at Martinsville. He has made thirty-seven starts at this race track and come away with thirty top 10s (including seven visits to victory lane). He also has seven poles to his name and not a single DNF has been registered for Gordon at this track. He stumbled in this race last season (20th) but Gordon has twelve top 5s in the last thirteen Martinsville races (seriously). He has also led at least 36 laps in each of the last ten.
5. Denny Hamlin - We all know the story of the #11 team in the 2011 season: they're running okay, but nowhere near where they should be, especially at the tracks where they should be dominant (like Pocono and here at Martinsville, for example). In April, Hamlin finished 12th after starting 5th and leading 89 laps, which isn't bad, but when you look at the fact that he won the three previous races entering that event, it's not as impressive. In fact, that 12th-place finish in April has been Denny's worst since 2006, where he finished 37th after starting 41st and getting in an accident. Hamlin has the potential to win on Sunday (his average finish of 6.6 in twelve career starts here shows that) but judging by the way his season has gone thus far, I just don't see it happening. In fact, this 5th-place ranking may be a bit too high, too. I guess we'll find out...
6. Carl Edwards - If Cousin Carl is going to make my pre-season prediction of being the 2011 champion come true, he's going to need a not-so-normal run this weekend in Martinsville, Virginia. Roush-Fenway isn't great at "The Paperclip," and Edwards is no exception: in fourteen starts here, he has just one top 5 finish and a total of four top 10s. Also, Carl has led a grand total of three laps in his career here, and all three were in the April race earlier this season. He does have two 8th-place finishes in the last three races at Martinsville, though, so there's something positive for those looking to pick Carl Edwards this weekend. Other than that, all you really have is his momentum (worst finish of 11th in the last nine Sprint Cup races).
7. Brad Keselowski - Unless you really hate this kid, chances are you are happy at the fact that "Bad Brad" is right in the thick of things for this championship. Sitting at third in the points, Keselowski is coming to a track that is (statistically) his sixth-best on the circuit. In his first career starts at Martinsville, Brad completed all 508 laps and finished 12th after starting 30th. He followed that up in this race last season with a 10th-place finish, also completing 100% of the laps ran. When the series stopped here in April, though, Keselowski finished 19th, two laps down. However, that was back when this team looked like their "normal self." I'm expecting a career day for BK at "The Paperclip" on Sunday, and it wouldn't be very far fetched to see him close in on the points lead once the checkered flag waves.
8. Clint Bowyer - NASCAR's most recent winner will come into a track this weekend that he has found some success at in the past. In eleven career starts at Martinsville, Clint has notched seven finishes of 11th or better and owns an average finish of 14.7. He led 91 laps in the spring race and, surprisingly, those have been his only laps led at this track. In the last two fall races here, though, Bowyer has finishes of 19th and 38th. However, I like how this team is running, and in the last five races here, Clint has the seventh-best average driver rating of anyone in the series.
9. Ryan Newman - Despite finishes of 30th and 20th in the last two Martinsville races, "The Rocketman" still has the eight-best average driver rating in the last five races here, so those weren't due to the fact that he raced bad (Newman started 4th and 2nd in those races, respectively). Before that, Ryan had three-straight top 10s at "The Paperclip," and in nineteen career starts here, Newman has an average finish of 14.6 and just four finishes outside of the top 20. I would second-guess picking him, though, if both him and his owner, Tony Stewart, appear to be struggling in practice on Friday. Newman has started 4th or better in three of the last four Martinsville races.
10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - This is actually a pretty good race track for Junior, and with a little luck, it's possible that he finally breaks his win-less streak on Sunday (I said possible, not probable). In twenty-three starts at Martinsville, Earnhardt has twelve top 10s to his name, and nine of those have also been top 5s. In the last five races at "The Paperclip," Junior has the tenth-best average driver rating and an average finish of 12.2. Also, since joining Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR's Golden Boy has made seven starts at this track and has just one finish worse than 15th.
11. Jamie McMurray - This is about the only place you can really trust Jamie Mac to give you a decent finish (this season, anyway). In seventeen career starts, McMurray has notched ten top 10s and an average finish of 15.7. Of those ten, though, only one has been a top 5, which was a 2nd-place effort in 2004. In the last five races at Martinsville, Jamie has four finishes of 11th or better and he had the sixth-best driver rating during the race here in April, where McMurray finished 7th after starting on the pole.
12. Matt Kenseth - Like I said with his team mate, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, who isn't great at Martinsville, will also need to have a solid run this weekend to keep his championship hopes alive. In twenty-three starts at "The Paperclip," the 2003 NASCAR champ has just two top 5s to his name and an average finish of 15.8. In the last four races here, though, Kenseth hasn't finished worse than 18th and he brought the #17 Ford home in 6th in the race earlier this year. He has completed 99% of the laps ran, so he's not terrible at this track, but you won't find Matt dominating on Sunday (only 68 total laps led in his career here).
13. Joey Logano - Statistically, this is Sliced Bread's second-best track on the circuit, and that doesn't really surprise me due to the fact of how well the Gibbs Toyotas have ran at "The Paperclip" lately. Logano's first start at Martinsville ended with him in 32nd, but in the four races since, Joey has an average finish of 8.3 and has completed all but one lap ran. Around this time last year was when Logano went on his hot streak to end the 2010 season.
14. Juan Montoya - If you want a really risky pick with high reward potential this weekend, Juan Montoya is your man. But then again, when isn't he a risky pick with high reward potential? Anyway, in nine career starts at Martinsville, JPM has an average finish of 13.9 and just one finish outside of the top 20. In the last four races here, Montoya has 3rd and 4th-place finishes to go along with 19th and 26th-place efforts. Don't be afraid to give Juan a shot if the #42 Chevrolet looks good in practice on Friday.
15. Jeff Burton - With his season-best 2nd-place finish last week at Talladega, Jeff Burton now has four top 15s in the last six Sprint Cup races, and he hasn't finished worse than 21st in that span. At Martinsville, Jeff has made thirty-four career starts and owns an average finish of 14.9 with fifteen top 10s. He finished 24th here in April but that has been Burton's first finish outside of the top 20 here since 2006. I think he'll have a little momentum coming into this weekend and Jeff Burton should be a good top 15 pick, and with a little luck could notch a top 10.
Those To Avoid Entering The Tums Fast Relief 500:
Greg Biffle - Most of the Roush-Fenway stable struggles at Martinsville, but The Biff may be the worst of them all. In seventeen career starts here, Biffle has just two top 10s and an average finish of 22.9. Also, despite having three top 5 starts six races at this track, Greg has only led 15 laps of the 3,013 ran. A top 10 would be considered a win for this team this weekend.
Kurt Busch - It surprises me how much the elder Busch brother struggles at this track considering how well he has been at Bristol, another short track, in the past. In twenty-two starts at "The Paperclip," Kurt has just four (four!) top 10s, and he hasn't finished there since 2005. Busch won at Martinsville in 2002, but that was then and this is now. He has finished between 16th and 18th in four of the last five races here. Expect the same out of the Double Deuce this weekend.
Kasey Kahne - I very well could change my mind about this depending on how the #4 Toyota looks in practice, but going into this race I'm going to avoid Kasey Kahne even though he has been running very well over the past month. At Martinsville Speedway, though, it's a different story for KK. He has a runner-up finish to his credit here (back in 2005), but that is only one of two top 10s for Kahne in fifteen career starts here. He started 3rd here in April but had a teens-at-best car before wrecking with Martin Truex, Jr. and finishing 39th.