With heavy hearts, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers put on their helmets and started the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday with memories of IndyCar's Dan Wheldon and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli in their thoughts. Both racers lost their lives last week in racing incidents. Memories and tributes were prevalent throughout the NASCAR garage.
Mark Martin led the field to the green flag by virtue of turning the fastest time in Saturday's qualifying session. The race was another exercise in two-car drafting, but also showed some large packs of duos. Dancers found partners early in the race, while some were forced to find others when trouble befell their primary choice. The race's pairings seemed to have more of a corporate feel to them versus the racers finding one another on their own throughout the race. The partners stuck to teammates whenever, and even manufacturers, whenever possible.
In the end, some remarkable comebacks were on hand for the final 10-lap sprint to the checkered flag. Both Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano came back from early contact to help push other cars to the front. While those two redeemed themselves with strong finishes, it was the Richard Childress Racing teammates of Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer that lapped the field to the win. Burton picked up his first top-five and second top-10 of the year, while Bowyer outmuscled him to take home the winner's check.
Teams vying for this week's win at Martinsville Speedway will have to overcome the trials and tribulations of short-track racing. That means hard driving, plenty of contact and elevated driver tempers. While temperatures under the helmet usually rise in such situations, brakes also suffer. The long straights and tight turns of the Virginia "paperclip" will be the main mechanical hurdle competitive teams must overcome.
Clint Bowyer - Pushing teammate Jeff Burton to a sizable lead in the final restart of Sunday's Good Sam Club 500 enabled Bowyer the luxury of making a move for the win. He did just that, as the two came off turn 4 on the final lap, and while the two battered each other's sides trying to gain some momentum, Bowyer came home with the trophy. His top-five and two other top-10s in the last five Martinsville races help him to an average finish of 15.6, a number that is dragged down by a DNF. Bowyer is a solid short-track racer, and returning to his roots in Virginia this week could be more medicine to the team trying to be the best finishers outside of the Chase in 2011.
Denny Hamlin - Contact with Martin hampered Hamlin's chances for a top finish at Talladega. He was behind the pace early, but came back to be in the mix for a win. Ultimately, a good result was not to be for the No. 11, and his hopes for winning the Chase continue to fade. This week could provide some opportunity for redemption, though. No fantasy player would sit Hamlin out at Martinsville, but to describe his abilities at the track even better, his average finish in the last five starts is 3.4. That astonishing number includes three wins and just one finish outside of the top five. Hamlin is one of only two drivers to finish on the lead lap in each of the last five Martinsville races.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson suffered a heavy hit from a spinning Andy Lally late in Sunday's proceedings, but he escaped serious damage. At the end of the afternoon Johnson picked up one place in the Chase, moving past Kurt Busch with his 26th-place finish. That result has to be disappointing because Johnson had been at the front of the field all afternoon but couldn't work his way forward in the end. Despite the small disappointment, it is difficult to understate the ability of Johnson to score top results at Martinsville. In the last five races he tallied a win, two other top-fives and yet another top-10, giving him an average finish of 5.6. Johnson is a must-start this weekend.
Mark Martin - Martin qualified on pole for last week's Good Sam Club 500, and that momentum should help him score a cracking finish this week. His result at Talladega was blunted by late-race contact that forced him to lose control and bounce off a few other cars. The damage wasn't severe, and he was able to continue on to finish 20th. The result may not have been a memorable one, but the laps he led and the competitiveness of the drive could easily carry through to this week. His recent Martinsville record is a good one, with a top-10 average finish of 9.6, from a top-five and three other top-10s in the last five attempts.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The crowd cheered as Earnhardt found his way to the front of the pack Sunday at Talladega. Unfortunately, he and teammate Johnson weren't able to reel in the lead cars in the final restarts. It wouldn't have been a surprise to see Earnhardt burst through to victory last weekend, and that competitiveness will be a boost as he heads to one of his better tracks. Having only finished off of the lead lap once in the last five Martinsville races, Earnhardt's average finish is 12.2. He scored a top-five and two other top-10s in those five attempts, and despite not always being the fastest, he knows how to get the car to the finish at the Virginia track, something fantasy owners will appreciate.
Joey Logano - A poor attempt to get on pit road early in Sunday's race forced Logano to lose time to the leaders, blow a front tire and then pit to repair the damaged bodywork. After the damage, he did a great job of pushing others ahead of him. He hid his damaged bumper from the airflow, while leaving the intact side to scoop as much fresh air as possible as he pushed his drafting partners ahead. It was a mature drive from the youngster. Two top-10 finishes from the last five Martinsville races help guide Logano's average result to 13.0. He may not be in the Chase, but his statistics at Martinsville could be enough of a signal that Logano would make a dependable third driver for fantasy rosters this week.
Kurt Busch - A late race accident collected Busch and ended his day in the garage with damage. The charging Busch hit Bobby Labonte directly in the rear corner as he lost control, destroying both cars. He hadn't been among the fastest cars throughout the afternoon, but finishing the day in the garage was still not the result the No. 22 deserved. Making things tougher is the fact that Busch's last five races at Martinsville gave him an average finish of 18.0. He finished a lap or more down to the leaders three of those five times. Martinsville has not been a track where the Penske cars have been able to make their presence felt, and this week fantasy owners shouldn't expect that trend to change.
Paul Menard - Menard spent much of Sunday's race at Talladega as a pusher. He helped Kevin Harvick rebound after the No. 29 suffered heavy damage in an early crash. It was as sacrificial a day as one could imagine, but Menard claimed some solid points of his own despite the selflessness. He finished 12th Sunday, building consistent results at the most inconsistent track. Despite Menard's upturn in results and consistency in 2011, Martinsville success continues to elude him. His average finish of 22.6 from the last five races includes a DNF and only two lead-lap finishes. Menard is certainly on his way to greater things, but performing at Martinsville will prove to be a bit more of a hill to climb.
David Reutimann - Reutimann's 13th-place finish at Talladega tied his best finish in the last 14 races. Keeping his nose clean throughout the 500 miles was enough to help him to that finish. Still, he wasn't the fastest car on the track, and it was a fairly unremarkable performance all told. In summation, Reutimann and team are still working on finding the success they enjoyed in 2010, which doesn't bode well for this week's TUMS Fast Relief 500. Struggles at Martinsville hamper Reutimann's effectiveness at the track, and his average finish of 21.2 in the last five races is evidence. He failed to finish on the lead lap four out of the last five Martinsville races, and that simply is not good enough this week.
Greg Biffle - Sunday was a decent and somewhat quiet day for Biffle. In fact, it probably didn't turn out as good as it could have. The No. 16 car was competitive through the afternoon and Biffle drove clear of trouble when it happened ahead of him. He finished Sunday's race in 14th position despite running with the leaders for much of the afternoon. It just wasn't enough to make a meaningful impact. Additionally, a solitary top-10 finish doesn't help propel Biffle's recent finishing average at Martinsville skyward. His average result from the last five races is just 23.4, including just one finish on the lead lap. Biffle is not a fantasy driver to bank on this week.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne spun early in Sunday's race at Talladega, but got back on the lead lap, and worked in tandem with teammate Brian Vickers to challenge for the lead in the final 50 laps. He finished the race in sixth position, and the teammates looked like one of the only pairings that had a chance to race down the leading Richard Childress Racing teammates in the closing laps. The fight back from his earlier troubles demonstrates Kahne's tenacity, but it was just too much to overcome in the end. Despite the impressive performance, a lack of noteworthy finishes in his last five Martinsville events helps make Kahne an unattractive fantasy option this weekend. His five-race average finish is 24.2, and he failed to finish on the lead lap two of those tries.