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Goody’s Headache 500 Preview: Bullring Battle

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.

This week we go from the circuit's longest track, Talladega, to the circuit's shortest track. The Sprint Cup Series visits Martinsville Speedway, which is the circuit's shortest track, nestled in the foothills of Southern Virginia. After visiting super speedways and intermediate ovals for most of the Chase for the Cup, we swing to the other extreme for this week's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. With the big shift in racing style, the drivers had better be prepared for the surprises that the bullring at Martinsville will provide. Martinsville Speedway is best described as a "paper clip" shaped track for its twin 800 foot straight-aways capped with hair-pin corners banked at a modest 12 degrees. Racing at Martinsville requires mental toughness, physical stamina, and razor sharp concentration, and that doesn't even include the durability of your equipment which takes a brutal pounding on this abusive small oval. So survival will be the name of the game this weekend as the Chase drivers take to the short track in Southern Virginia. Martinsville Speedway demands the ultimate performance from both the driver and the car, so it is fitting that this bullring is one of the pivotal races that crowns NASCAR's champion. Some of the top contender's for this season's championship are excellent short track drivers, so we should see some real fireworks at the front of the pack this Sunday afternoon. Among those Hendrick Motorsports star, Jimmie Johnson, comes to mind right away. He claims Martinsville as his best short track and who can blame him? Johnson owns eight career victories at the half-mile paperclip. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet will definitely be defending his home turf this weekend in an effort to win his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship.

Let's take a quick look at the recent history of Martinsville Speedway. We have a select group of drivers that rise above the field on short tracks, and we expect to see them running up front on Sunday. As the loop stats will illustrate, there's a good reason why Johnson is going for his sixth title this season. The Chase schedule sets up well for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet and Martinsville is one of the key races in this 10 to win the championship. Johnson has absolutely dominated here over the years, and this event is a big reason why he's a five-time winner of the Sprint Cup trophy. In the table below are the loop stats for the last 17 races at Martinsville.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson3.95968892,1567,849123.8
Jeff Gordon4.96009681,6617,699120.7
Denny Hamlin8.25125571,1396,160111.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.35554484176,53398.8
Tony Stewart13.64173768446,11398.5
Kyle Busch16.15133784535,84596.6
Kevin Harvick15.44392092165,50292.6
Clint Bowyer13.24641972475,30691.9
Ryan Newman13.14571401364,91088.5
Brad Keselowski11.322043102,07687.4
Jeff Burton16.84282883665,04487.3
Mark Martin14.5236124272,87185.8
Jamie McMurray17.1340140744,54884.1
Carl Edwards15.6478112314,60380.6
Matt Kenseth14.7316821304,04980.5
Juan Pablo Montoya16.5380166462,80279.9
Brian Vickers18.937990273,68979.5
Kasey Kahne20.1274229133,14678.1
Kurt Busch21.4337135713,88077.1
Joey Logano16.12863601,91777.1

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in April of this year. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch have swapped the points lead. Defending champion, Brad Keselowski, shockingly missed making the Chase field after a late-summer slump. Kevin Harvick, Kenseth and Busch are trying desperately to keep pace with Johnson in the championship chase entering this event, so they'll be racing for the win on Sunday at Martinsville to keep those hopes intact. All-in-all it has been a wild season of NASCAR racing since the last time we visited the historic Virginia short track. If this week's race plays out like the spring installment at Martinsville, we should be in for some excitement. Johnson dominated most of the event, but he had to hold off several challengers on the late restart to capture his second-straight win at the oval. It capped 12 lead changes on the day and lots of fireworks and excitement to end the 500 laps in the Virginia bullring. There's good reason to believe we could see a similar battle develop in Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. Kenseth and Busch presented the biggest challenges to Johnson that day in April and it could be a rerun of that action on Sunday afternoon. As with any race this far into the Chase there are a lot of story lines going into this event at Martinsville Speedway. None the least of which will be NASCAR stars Johnson and Kenseth squaring off in almost what can be deemed a one-on-one duel to see who will set the pace in these handful of remaining Chase races. We'll examine the short track specialists who thrive on small ovals like Martinsville, and give you the tips that will help you win your league this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
Our five-time Sprint Cup Series champion is an eight-time winner at Martinsville, and has led well over 2,300 career laps at the paper clip shaped track. The No. 48 team has won the last two races at this oval so Johnson has to be seen as the lead contender entering the weekend. With the championship on the line, the stakes will be very high and this driver historically performs under pressure. He led 346 laps and battled for the win with teammate Jeff Gordon in this April's STP Gas Booster 500, so the black book on this track should come in handy this Sunday afternoon. Johnson has a knack of stepping up his performance when everything is on the line, and that's the precise scenario in this 500-lap brawl.

Jeff Gordon -
The seven-time Martinsville winner is not hardly out of the championship picture just yet. While Gordon is a bit of a long shot at 34 points back of teammate Johnson, he's still got a lot to race for in this Martinsville race. Gordon has led over 3,500 laps at Martinsville Speedway and he's posted a staggering 33 Top 10s for his career at this facility. That works out to an amazing 81 percent Top 10 rate and 7.0 average finish over 41 career starts. Once we digest those impressive numbers, we firmly believe the Hendrick Motorsports legend could navigate this bullring in his sleep. Gordon didn't dominate the April event at Martinsville, but he did collect his third Top 5 here in the last five starts, so we have to keep that in mind when setting our lineups for this very important race.

Kyle Busch -
Busch will continue building his new Martinsville resume this weekend in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. The JGR star had it rough at this half-mile oval for the early part of his career, but that's started to reverse in recent visits. Busch has four Top 5s, including one runner-up finish in his last six visits to Martinsville Speedway. He's led 333 laps during this brief span and shown he can rub fenders with Johnson and Gordon here. Busch is still in the championship picture, so motivation certainly won't be an issue for this 500-lap event. We expect to see the No. 18 Toyota mixing it up at the front Sunday afternoon at the paperclip.

Matt Kenseth -
The driver of the No. 20 Toyota doesn't sport the career numbers at this short track that other stars of the series do. This is thanks mostly to his many years of racing at Roush Fenway Racing, which has not had a lot of success here as a team. Kenseth's first Martinsville start in the JGR Toyota at this small speedway netted a career-best 96 laps led before misfortune led to a 14th-place finish in the spring race at this facility. With the urgency of the Sprint Cup Series championship in the balance we expect this driver and team to be on their "A" game Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is coming off the brilliant runner-up finish at Talladega, so he comes to Virginia riding a wave of momentum. He owns 10 career Top 5s and 14 Top 10s at the Virginia bullring. He has come the closest of the field at upsetting the Martinsville big three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon in recent races. Earnhardt finished sixth at the similar flat oval of Loudon, New Hampshire at the start of the Chase, so the short track performance of this team is strong right now. The risk is relatively small and the fantasy racing upside is too good to ignore.

Kevin Harvick -
It's been a stellar season for the No. 29 team, and Harvick has his intentions set on challenging for the championship in his final four races with Richard Childress Racing. While Harvick has been anything but consistent of late, he has been pretty steady on his best tracks. Martinsville Speedway is one of those facilities for the veteran driver. Harvick has one career victory and 10 Top-10 finishes at the paperclip in Virginia. Three of those Top 10s have come in the last six visits to the speedway. The RCR veteran has been on a roll at Martinsville the last few visits, so momentum is on his side.

Kasey Kahne -
This selection is somewhat at odds with the stats, but follow our line of logic here. Kahne has only four Top 10s in 19 career starts at Martinsville Speedway. This small oval has held a lot more heartache than success for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Where the trend has started changing is in the last year. Kahne has third- and fourth-place finishes in his last two trips to the paperclip. He's a member of Hendrick Motorsports which is the same stable that has led Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to so much success at this facility. Kahne had a very strong car at Charlotte two weeks ago, so the team is rolling out top notch equipment for their star driver right now.

Clint Bowyer -
The short tracks have been successful venues for Bowyer during his Sprint Cup Series career, and Martinsville Speedway has been no exception. The No. 15 team is not in the thick of the championship battle but he should be motivated none-the-less. Bowyer will be looking to turn in a big performance on Sunday afternoon. Bowyer's three Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes in his 15 career trips to Martinsville entering this event show his expertise at this small oval. The Michael Waltrip Racing star's last two trips to central Virginia have netted fifth- and second-place finishes.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin needs to have a big performance at the Virginia short track this weekend if he hopes to begin reversing his fortunes for 2014. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won four career victories at Martinsville Speedway, and he's led over 1,100 career circuits at the half-mile oval. The No. 11 Toyota team has been battling some major demons this season, but we would be irresponsible to place Hamlin any lower than this in the weekly rankings. The upside is just too big to ignore, and indicators have been showing improved performance for this team of late.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski doesn't have the resume that other Sprint Cup drivers have at this short track due to his brief career to this point, but he's building that portfolio quickly. He has four Top 10s in seven career starts at Martinsville Speedway, and his visit here in April yielded an impressive sixth-place finish. The reigning series champion has been well known for his short track prowess during his four seasons of competition. That should translate well to the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has struggled with consistency of late, but we expect the Penske Racing star to step up his game this weekend. Keselowski's victory at Charlotte two weeks ago is a sign the competitive driver is turning the corner heading into the off-season.

Ryan Newman -
In most instances Newman makes a dependable start on the flat tracks, and Martinsville is no exception. He's won at Phoenix, Loudon and Martinsville over his career, so it's a no brainer to roll him when we visit the paperclip. Rocket Man won the spring race of 2012 at the Virginia short track in a wild green-white-checkered finish. That victory was surprising, but Newman had done plenty to earn at minimum a Top-10 finish that day in April. In addition to the win he owns 11 career Top 10s at Martinsville Speedway. Anytime you can average better than 50 percent finishing in the Top 10 at a short track like Martinsville, you've accomplished something big.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran is not known for his career record at the central Virginia bullring, but he's been steadily improving here in recent seasons. Biffle's last four visits to Martinsville Speedway have netted 15th-, 13th-, 10th- and ninth-place finishes. While not spectacular, those are pretty respectable results given that Biffle has a career average finish of 20.8 in 24 starts at the Martinsville oval. The driver of the No. 16 Ford finished an impressive third at the flat, small oval in Loudon a few weeks ago. The Chase has been pretty steady and performance-filled for this driver and team. More importantly, Biffle hasn't suffered a DNF all season long, nor has he finished outside the Top 20 since July.

Jamie McMurray -
Our Talladega winner is rolling into central Virginia this week on a tsunami wave of momentum after his huge victory this past weekend. McMurray should keep it going with a good start at the flat short track. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing veteran has made 21 starts at this speedway and he boasts one pole position and an impressive 11 Top-10 finishes. That's a tick better than 50 percent for this steady driver. In April's STP Gas Booster 500, McMurray battled at the front all day and finished a stellar seventh in the series' last trip to this facility. Given his record here and his current level of performance, another Top-10 finish is quite possible for the No. 1 Chevrolet team.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola is dealing with some team drama right now. Long-time crew chief, Todd Parrott, was just suspended indefinitely by NASCAR, and let go by the team due to violating the sport's substance abuse policy. However, we have good reason to believe the driver of the No. 43 Ford will rally at Martinsville this weekend. Almirola will have his car chief of two seasons calling the shots, so there should be some chemistry and continuity in the team. He also sports some great recent numbers at this short track. Almirola has eighth-, fourth- and 20th-place finishes at Martinsville Speedway in his last three starts. He should be a good start at the bottom of the fantasy racing bench this week.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
The realization of an uncertain future in the sport may finally be sinking in with this driver. Truex had a pretty good season going until the Richmond controversy that has cost him his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing. The last few weeks has seen the No. 56 Toyota compete at a subpar level. With only two Top 10s in the six Chase races, Truex has stagnated in the driver standings. He is coming off a Top 10 at Talladega, but his other intermediate to small oval starts in recent weeks has been rather uninspiring. Truex's career numbers at Martinsville Speedway show four Top 10s in 15 starts and an average finish around 22.7. His last two visits to this facility have netted 23rd- and 40th-place finishes.

David Gilliland -
We go from one of his best tracks on the circuit (Talladega) to one of his worst this weekend. Martinsville has been a real thorn in the side of this veteran driver. Gilliland's last five trips to Martinsville Speedway have yielded no finishes better than 28th, and an average finish of 30.1 with one DNF. The closest the FRM driver has come to finishing on the lead lap at this facility over that five-race span is 4 laps down, and that came in April's STP Gas Booster 500. The upside is nearly non-existent, and nothing but bad things can happen with the No. 38 team this weekend.

Brian Vickers -
Normally we would give a big endorsement to Vickers at Martinsville. He's been Michael Waltrip Racing's best short track driver the last two seasons. He even won earlier this year at the flat oval in Loudon. But this time around keep the driver of the No. 55 Toyota on the bench. The news in the past week is that he'll miss the remainder of the season with blood clots. It's a medical condition that sidelined him during the 2010 season and has cropped up again. Vickers' expertise will be sorely missed by this team, especially on this short track.

Kurt Busch -
The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet has been a wonderful performer during the 2013 season. Busch's 15 Top-10 finishes to this point in the season and ninth-place ranking in the standings coming to Martinsville is the most successful season he's had since 2009. However, Busch has had his weaknesses like any other driver. Martinsville has been that Achilles' heel over his career. Despite being a one-time winner here, he has only four Top 10s in 26 starts. The last one coming all the way back in 2005. If the spring race here is any indication (37th-place and DNF) one should just stay away from fantasy racing expectation of this driver and team this Sunday.
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