After rain made qualifying for last weekend's race at Talladega Superspeedway impossible, Aric Almirola led the field to the green flag from pole. It wasn't long before the usual suspects pushed their way to the front, though.
The race distance ticked down at a quick pace with plenty of green-flag stops and very few cautions to contemplate strategy. Teams were forced to race their way to the front for the closing laps, and it was Jamie McMurray who put himself into the lead in the final laps. Talladega's "big one" came on the final lap and sealed victory for the No. 1 team, its first of the season and first since 2011.
This week presents a stark contrast to the open straights of Talladega Superspeedway, and the series returns to Martinsville Speedway, a short-track event that is hard on brakes and tempers. While drafting was the key to success last week, pit strategy and handling through tight turns will be the difference this weekend.
Jamie McMurray - McMurray has a habit of coming to the fore when the chips are on the table. He can win the biggest races of the season, and last week at Talladega was no exception. He capped off a spectacular weekend for Chip Ganassi, who won the IndyCar championship with Scott Dixon the night before in California. McMurray owns two top-10 finishes from the last five Martinsville races, which provides an average finish of 17.2 in that time. While the team hasn't been one to speak much of the past few seasons, McMurray is the one driver on the roster that can overcome adversity and tally the victories. While he isn't expected to post back-to-back victories, McMurray could get a bounce from his top finish last week.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon is always strong at Martinsville. He knows the track well, and can maneuver his way to a top finish seemingly at will. His average finish from the last five races there is 6.4, second only to teammate Johnson and has four top-10s in that span. He finished 14th in Talladega after a long afternoon fraught with danger. Still, Gordon found himself in a respectable position in the closing laps, and kept his nose clean. His efforts weren't accretive, however, and the past champion fell a spot further in the Chase standings. He isn't going to collect another championship this season, but Gordon continues to show he can compete with the best, and this week gives him yet another opportunity to do just that.
Clint Bowyer - Another driver that knows his way around Martinsville Speedway is Bowyer. Two top-5s and four top-10s in his last five races at the Virginia track give him an average finish through the span of 9.0. Add to that great run of results the fact that he has not failed to live up to expectations this season and you have the recipe for a top fantasy selection this week. He notched yet another top-10 finish at Talladega, and continued the strong run of form he has seen for the past two seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer is a consistent finisher, and his Martinsville statistics are among the best. The combination make him a confident selection for fantasy roster this week.
Jimmie Johnson - Martinsville and Johnson are becoming synonymous with one another. The championship contender won two of the last five races at the paperclip track, and scored an average finish of 5.4 in the same time. He led most of the laps Sunday in Talladega, and took the championship lead from Matt Kenseth with his performance. A four-point gap at the front and some momentum behind him means that Johnson may have wrestled the tide away from the No. 20 team, and stopping the five-time champion could now prove to be a herculean task. It will be hard to find a weakness with Johnson over the last races of the season, and it will take something special from the rest of the field to knock him off his perch this week.
Aric Almirola - While rain was what ultimately decided Almirola's top start last week, he had to post the fastest speed in practice in order to claim it. While he wasn't a major factor in Sunday's race, Almirola did lead eight laps in a very competitive race. At Martinsville, his last three races include two top-10 results and an average finish of 10.7. Almirola isn't a driver fantasy players would normally turn to, but a decent run Sunday coupled with a track he performs respectably on, Almirola could be an option deep in the depth charts that can offer some confident points this week.
Kurt Busch - Martinsville hasn't been a happy hunting ground for Busch of late. He only claims two top-15 finishes at the track from the last five races, and his average finish in that span is just 23.0. Busch finished 18th on Sunday, leading three laps en route. He isn't considered a favorite to win the Chase, never was, and his performances with Furniture Row Racing this season have been nothing less than impressive. He moves on to what could be a more competitive drive nest season and continues to treat his current team to a great ride. Unfortunately, fantasy owners need something a bit more substantial this week, and the No. 78 simply doesn't offer it. While there could be some upside from the champion, a top performance isn't a sure thing this week.
Carl Edwards - Finishing just one spot better than Busch last week at Talladega, Edwards didn't have the greatest of outings last week. While he was able to lead a lap, he wasn't able to turn it into a top-10 result. Edwards sits toward the bottom of the Chase standings with four races remaining, and isn't going to win the title this season. While things aren't terrible in the No. 99 camp, Edwards isn't the contender he was just a few seasons ago. Only one top-10 finish in the last five Martinsville races depresses the No. 99's average finish in that time to 14.2. Despite starting from pole position at the track in the fall of 2011, Edwards hasn't captured his fair share of points at the track recently.
Denny Hamlin - A mechanical issue ended Hamlin's afternoon early on Sunday. He was running at the front a few times, but wasn't able to complete the distance. While Hamlin is typically a force at short tracks, Martinsville Speedway hasn't been at the top of that list. His last five Martinsville starts produced one top-5 and one other top-10 finish, culminating in an average finish of 14.0. He failed to finish on the lead lap twice in that span. The current season has been nothing short of a disaster for the No. 11 team, and there doesn't appear to be many more opportunities to end the season on an upward trajectory. Now it is complete focus on 2014.
Joey Logano - Logano hasn't notched a single top-10 finish in the last five Martinsville races. His average result at the track in that time is 18.6, and includes only two lead-lap finishes. Add to those disappointing statistics the fact that Logano finished 16th in Talladega, falling one spot further down the standings, and you have a driver that has hit a rough patch in an otherwise impressive season. While Logano has put up one of the most improved seasons of any driver, he still isn't showing the consistency necessary to make him a champion in NASCAR's top level. Logano is poised to improve even more in 2014, but this week at Martinsville may be a time to temper one's expectations.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth lost his grip on the lead of the Chase last weekend in Talladega. Last week's race may be something he looks back on with disappointment since Johnson took the lead and put himself four points ahead. While Johnson only finished 13th in Talladega, Kenseth wasn't able to keep pace and finished 20th. It was a minor slip, but could be a moment the veteran looks back on with regret. Kenseth hasn't been as dominant at Martinsville as Johnson either. His two top-10 finishes in the last five races at the track pale in comparison to Johnson's statistics. The blow of losing the championship lead and then heading to one of Johnson's best circuits could put Kenseth behind the ball and may make things a bit more difficult from which to overcome.