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Goody's 500 Preview: Short Track Survival

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.

We go from the west coast back to the east coast this week as the Sprint Cup Series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Va., for the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. Martinsville marks the return to short tracks after the just-completed race at the two-mile oval in Fontana, California. Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is absolutely flat on the long straight-aways. Brake preservation is the name of the game in Martinsville, because you essentially have two drag strips with hairpin corners on either end. The oval looks very much like a paper clip when viewed from above. Taking care of your brakes for the full 500 laps becomes as important as passing on this tricky short track. Like any bull ring in the Sprint Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but qualifying and track position is huge. If you start in the back of the field here, you can find yourself down a lap in a matter of minutes from the start of the race, so teams must place high priority on qualifying well. Track position will become so important over the course of the race that you will see teams chose either not to pit certain cautions, or to take on two tires in order to grab track position.

This weekend's race will be very important from a qualifying standpoint. Martinsville and the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 is where the 2011 championship points kick-in for provisional starts. Teams have fallen back on last season's points thus far for provisional starts. There are a handful of teams that were in the Top 35 last season, and are not now. Also, there are some teams that have worked their way into the Top 35 that weren't there last season. The following is a rundown of some of the teams of importance.


DRIVERTEAMRANK
Trevor BayneNo. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford29th
Jamie McMurrayNo. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevy30th
Joey LoganoNo. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota31st
Regan SmithNo. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy32nd
Ken SchraderNo. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford33rd
Robby GordonNo. 7 Robby Gordon Motorsports Dodge34th
Casey MearsNo. 13 Germain Racing Toyota35th
Andy LallyNo. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevy36th
Dave BlaneyNo. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy37th
Tony RainesNo. 37 Front Row Motorsports Ford38th
Travis KvapilNo. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford39th
J.J. YeleyNo. 46 Whitney Motorsports Chevy40th
Joe NemechekNo. 87 NEMCO Toyota41st

The Front Row Motorsports teams started the season in varying degrees regarding the points. Some started with provisional starts and some did not. Only David Gilliland in the No. 34 Ford is well within the Top 35 at 27th-place overall. Going to Martinsville this week the other two FRM teams of Travis Kvapil and Tony Raines are in danger of going home. After a big 2010 season, Regan Smith and the No. 78 team are off to a rough start and are precariously perched at 32nd overall. The Furniture Row Racing team will need to turn a good performance this weekend or risk falling outside the Top 35 after Martinsville. The most noteworthy team outside the Top 35 right now is Dave Blaney and his No. 36 TBR team. After securing the sponsors to run the full season in 2011, Blaney is off to a rough start and in the danger zone heading to Martinsville Speedway this week. In summary, keep a close eye on qualifying this week. These teams outside the Top 35 present a huge risk to fantasy racing players who look to employ their services in the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500.

Since Martinsville Speedway is like no other track on the Sprint Cup circuit, we'll have to pay close attention to the loop stats this week. Recent statistics at Martinsville will be one of the biggest factors in our weekly projections. Hot streaks go out the window to a certain extent when we visit this facility, so it's these recent numbers that require close scrutiny. The loop stats in the table below span the last six years or 12 races at Martinsville Speedway.


DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson3.34145911,3805,457122.5
Jeff Gordon4.33696441,0905,392120.5
Denny Hamlin6.13333579494,373112.5
Tony Stewart12.22983608304,902106.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.73293853974,40598.7
Kevin Harvick16.02701281543,92292.6
Kyle Busch16.73561691203,89291.0
Jeff Burton16.13042603663,72491.0
Mark Martin14.0159113272,45789.9
Ryan Newman12.525983803,34788.8
Jamie McMurray17.019285433,35285.5
Clint Bowyer15.32467803,13484.3
Juan Pablo Montoya15.1226114461,89383.0
Carl Edwards16.235210103,50281.9
Joey Logano13.01501301,03181.0
Kurt Busch20.8220109713,21780.7
Brian Vickers20.02153702,34077.0
Matt Kenseth15.115828292,46775.6
Brad Keselowski11.0371028973.5
Kasey Kahne19.411711201,75573.1

Martinsville has been a tale of two drivers in recent seasons. Since the fall of 2006 we have only had two drivers visit victory lane at the Virginia short track. Denny Hamlin has taken owner Joe Gibbs and Toyota to winner's circle the last three races there. He wrestled control of this small oval from Jimmie Johnson. The reigning Sprint Cup champion had won five of the prior six races to Hamlin's recent streak. The only interruption in his streak was a victory by Hamlin in the spring of 2008. The chances for this two-driver domination to end in this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 would seem very slim. Of the best-of-the-rest we would consider veteran drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to be the ones with the tools to upset the dynamic Martinsville duo. We'll take a look at the stats and streaks and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Martinsville Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson –
With six career wins at the Martinsville oval, Johnson is positioned to be the driver to upset Denny Hamlin in this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. The reigning Sprint Cup champion has dominated Martinsville Speedway for a good portion of this decade. From 2004 to 2009 Johnson won six of the 10 events during that span. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy has led well over 1,500 laps for his career at Martinsville Speedway, so he makes an excellent choice for your fantasy lineups on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin is the reigning Martinsville stud. He has won the last three races at the small oval and has dueled almost exclusively with the No. 48 team at Martinsville Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led over 400 laps in the current three-race win streak, so the field is used to seeing the rear end of the No. 11 Toyota at this facility. Hamlin enters this event winless on the season and seeking some momentum. Martinsville is likely the best remedy for what ails Hamlin right now.

Tony Stewart –
The two-time Martinsville winner has better tracks in his resume than this small oval. Considering he wins in less than 1-in-10 starts at Martinsville, we're not likely to see the No. 14 Chevrolet roll into victory lane this Sunday. However, solid performances have been the norm for Smoke at the "paper clip." He cracks the Top 10 in a respectable 54 percent of his starts at the Virginia short track. If there is to be a magical upset this weekend, it's likely to come from Stewart.

Jeff Gordon –
Martinsville Speedway ranks number one on the circuit for the Hendrick Motorsports star with seven career wins and a staggering 23 Top-5 finishes. Gordon snapped an 11-race Top 5 streak at the oval when he finished a lowly 20th here last fall. The rejuvenated driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet seems poised to start a new streak at Martinsville Speedway. If Gordon doesn't steal the win he'll almost certainly lead laps and finish within the Top 5.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick –
If either Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin stumbles this Sunday, it could be the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team that swoops in and surprises in this race. We always think highly of Harvick when it comes to short track racing and his Martinsville resume would seem to add up to an outside run at victory lane. Harvick has led over 150 laps in his last two visits to Martinsville, Virginia. He won the pole for this event one year ago and finished a stellar third here in the fall of last season.

Carl Edwards –
The Roush Fenway Racing star is mounting another challenge for the Sprint Cup Series championship. Edwards' title quest could take another step forward with a good performance at Martinsville Speedway this weekend. His recent numbers at the historic short track includes Top 10's in four of his last six visits. While we're not accustomed to seeing the No. 99 Ford lead laps, it has become second nature to see the team collecting workman-like Top-10 finishes here.

Ryan Newman –
The Stewart-Haas No. 39 team is looking to continue their early-season hot streak and the best way to do that is to set Newman loose at Martinsville. The veteran driver owns three career poles and a 50 percent Top 10 rate at Martinsville Speedway. Newman has grabbed three Top-10 finishes in his last four visits to the flat oval. During that span he's led over 50 laps. Newman has this track dialed-in right now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Despite his inconsistency while racing for owner Rick Hendrick the last few seasons, Earnhardt has managed to maintain a solid resume at Martinsville Speedway. He has posted a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the small flat track, and managed four Top 10's in six starts there with the No. 88 team. In his last race at Martinsville, Earnhardt led 90 laps en route to a respectable seventh-place finish. It's clear that he knows how to navigate this tough bull ring.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Martinsville who can provide a solid finish

Juan Pablo Montoya –
After his third Top 10 of the season at Fontana last week, Montoya's name is on more than few people's minds. Martinsville is really the first oval that the IRL star became comfortable with when he made the jump to NASCAR. Montoya has eight career starts at the short track and he has only one finish outside the Top 20 with two Top 10's to his credit. Those stats average out to a respectable 15.1 average finish at this flat oval. Montoya is on a roll coming to Martinsville.

Kyle Busch –
The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has better tracks in his resume than Martinsville Speedway. He had a lot of up-and-down performances at the short track the last few seasons, but showed signs of improvement with a pair of fourth-place finishes here in his last three starts. You can't count out the driving ability of Busch any weekend that the Sprint Cup Series races. He has the ability to finish in the Top 5 at the Virginia short track, and his Top 5 last weekend at Auto Club Speedway underscores that fact.

Clint Bowyer –
The Richard Childress Racing teams usually flex their muscles at short tracks like Martinsville and Bristol. For a second straight week, Bowyer will make a good fantasy racing play at the small oval in Southern Virginia. He has five Top 10's in his last seven starts at Martinsville coming into this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. We expect to see the No. 33 Chevrolet running with the leaders on Sunday.

Paul Menard –
Menard's transition to Richard Childress Racing has been quite successful. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet enters this weekend an impressive seventh in the driver standings after his 16th-place finish at Fontana. Menard's seven career starts at the Virginia short track haven't yielded much, but his two starts there last season netted career-best 13th- and 14th-place finishes at the facility. We expect to see Menard back in the Top 15 at Martinsville Speedway again this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Michael Waltrip Racing star appears to be collecting the rewards of his second season with ace crew chief Pat Tryson. To this point in the season Truex sits a respectable 13th in the championship standings and he collected a decent Top-20 finish at the small oval in Bristol recently. Truex finished a career-best fifth-place in this event one year ago, and his Martinsville performances have been on the upswing in recent seasons.

David Ragan –
The deep sleeper of the bunch this weekend is Ragan. His racing to start this season has been decent, and the No. 6 team appears to be giving him good cars each week. Ragan doesn't have the greatest record at Martinsville, with only three Top 15's in nine career starts. The good news is that the Roush Fenway Racing driver has generally been in the Top 20 thus far this season, and he posted a pair of Top-20 finishes at the Virginia short track last season.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kurt Busch –
While we like Busch for the season as a whole in 2011, we're reserved about his chances this weekend at Martinsville. The Penske Racing star has one career win at the short track, but his recent performances there have been quite puzzling. Busch has failed to crack the Top 10 at Martinsville in his last 10 starts. He could spring off the mat this weekend and post a great finish, but it would be very surprising.

Regan Smith –
The Furniture Row Racing team has stumbled out of the gates this season. Through the first five races Smith sits a disastrous 30th in the driver points and 32nd in the owner points. He enters this week under a lot of pressure to keep the team in the critical Top 35. That pressure combined with his poor resume at Martinsville is a reason to be pessimistic about Smith's chances this weekend. Three of his five career starts at Martinsville Speedway have resulted in finishes outside the Top 30, with a 29.0 average finish.

David Reutimann –
We generally have positive thoughts when it comes to short track racing and Reutimann. However, Martinsville Speedway is where the two depart. Reutimann has no Top-15 finishes in eight career starts at the flat oval. The driver of the No. 00 Toyota limps into this event 27th in the points and with lowly 28th- and 27th-place finishes at the "paper clip" last season.

Greg Biffle –
With only two Top-10 finishes in 16 career starts at Martinsville Speedway, we are already skeptical about Biffle's chances this weekend. The last six races at the Virginia short track have seen the driver of the No. 16 Ford collect only one Top-10 finish. In his last appearance at Martinsville, Biffle qualified a stellar third, but finished a lowly 33rd after 500 laps of racing. For some unknown reason this short track is a real challenge for the veteran driver.