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NASCAR Barometer: Fight at the Bull Ring

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Now that we're five races into the Chase for the Cup, the championship picture is getting much clearer. Our fantasy racing perspective as it relates to the drivers is becoming clearer as well. With one win and four Top-5 finishes to start the Chase, Jimmie Johnson has yet again shown that Chase time is game-face time for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have each posted four Top-10 finishes to start the Chase and both are trying furiously to keep up with our four-time champion. This week's short track event at Martinsville Speedway will provide all three drivers to yet again take another step closer to the 2010 championship. It's a normal site to see all three racing up front and vying for the win at this Virginia short track, so the drama should be 10 on a 10 scale for the TUMS Fast Relief 500. We'll run down the list Upgrades and Downgrades to watch closely at this half-mile bull ring.

UPGRADES


Denny Hamlin –
This may be the week where the hunter becomes the hunted in the quest for the championship. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has supplanted Jimmie Johnson's dominance at this small oval the last couple seasons. Hamlin has won three of the last five races at the Virginia bull ring and effectively ended Johnson's iron grip on this facility. The No. 11 team will need to rely on that consistency again this Sunday. Hamlin should run up front and battle for the win in the TUMS Fast Relief 500.

Jimmie Johnson –
The No. 48 team is pulling their usual Chase performance, and kicking into high gear in the 10 races that matter each season. After a win at Dover and four total Top 5's to start the Chase for the Cup, Johnson rides a huge wave of momentum to one of his favorite tracks this weekend. The six-time Martinsville winner has seen his dominance at Martinsville Speedway threatened the last couple seasons by Denny Hamlin, but that should only be seen has motivation for the Hendrick Motorsports star.

Tony Stewart –
The championship is likely out of reach for Smoke. He sits sixth in the standings and trailing Johnson by 177 points coming to Martinsville this weekend. Still, the No. 14 team has been a consistent performer during this season's Chase for the Cup despite his poor effort at Charlotte this past weekend. Stewart is a two-time winner at the small oval and he's led close to 1,200 laps for his career at this facility. The career 57 percent Top 10 rate at Martinsville provides a measure of security for fantasy racing players in this event.

Jeff Gordon –
Despite not winning at Martinsville Speedway since 2005, Gordon still leads all active drivers with seven career victories at the half-mile oval. The No. 24 team reels off Top-5 finishes like no one's business at this speedway. Gordon sports an amazing 66 percent Top 5 rate at Martinsville and he hasn't finished outside the Top 5 here since 2004. While a stroll to victory lane is not likely in the cards for the Hendrick Motorsports star, another good performance and Top 5 should be in store.
Clint Bowyer – Short tracks have been kind to the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet over his brief Sprint Cup Series career. Bowyer's recent win at Loudon and Top 10 runs at Bristol and Richmond speak to the strength of the Richard Childress Racing driver on these small ovals. Martinsville has held a good measure of success for Bowyer as well. He has five Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to Martinsville Speedway. The TUMS Fast Relief 500 should see Bowyer racing with the leaders once more.

DOWNGRADES


Kyle Busch –
The only left for Busch is a respectable finish now that the championship is now out of reach. Busch hasn't had great success at Martinsville Speedway as he's cracked the Top 10 only once in his last five trips to the short track. It's likely going to be another challenging weekend for the talented driver.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger only gest a Downgrade because of history at this track. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been a fixture in the Top 15 the last several races, but he's facing an uphill battle this Sunday. In six career starts at the small Virginia oval he's finished outside the Top 30 four times and only cracked the Top 10 once. The odds are too great for a typical performance this weekend.

Kurt Busch –
Busch is the one driver to avoid this week. It's not that his short-track resume is lacking -- he's even won once at the Virginia bull ring -- but that the laundry list of poor finishes at this small oval are stacked to the ceiling for Busch. In 20 career starts he's only cracked the Top 10 four times, the last in 2005. That averages out to an uninspiring 21.6 average finish at Martinsville.

Elliott Sadler –
He has only three career Top 10's at the facility in 23 starts, and Sadler's last eight visits to Martinsville have only netted one Top-20 finish. Stay Away.