First Data 500 Preview: NASCAR'S Elite 8

First Data 500 Preview: NASCAR'S Elite 8

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This week we visit the circuit's shortest track to kick off the Round of 8 in the Chase for the Cup. The Monster Energy Cup Series visits Martinsville Speedway, which is the circuit's shortest track, nestled in the foothills of Southern Virginia. After visiting superspeedways and intermediate ovals for most of the Chase, we swing to the other extreme for this week's First Data 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 contenders 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. For those eight fortunate drivers advancing to the Round of 8 of the Chase, the stakes will be very high

This week we visit the circuit's shortest track to kick off the Round of 8 in the Chase for the Cup. The Monster Energy Cup Series visits Martinsville Speedway, which is the circuit's shortest track, nestled in the foothills of Southern Virginia. After visiting superspeedways and intermediate ovals for most of the Chase, we swing to the other extreme for this week's First Data 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 contenders 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. For those eight fortunate drivers advancing to the Round of 8 of the Chase, the stakes will be very high in this 500-lap brawl. 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 nine-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 eighth Monster Energy 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 group of the usual suspects we expect to dominate short track racing at the top. Among these are Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The trio have combined to win 15 races at this small oval. So these guys will be the heavy odds favorites to win the First Data 500. In the table below are the loop stats for the last 25 races at Martinsville Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson7.18701,1182,66710,743116.9
Denny Hamlin10.18467601,3879,224106.6
Kyle Busch13.67896241,1169,033101.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.98645865218,76997.8
Brad Keselowski12.95613432874,97393.7
Kevin Harvick15.27554624818,22293.4
Joey Logano13.65442534575,27691.3
Matt Kenseth13.46493226027,47189.0
Clint Bowyer14.57473573567,48388.7
Ryan Newman14.16881711387,16486.2
Jamie McMurray17.66132281587,06385.2
Kurt Busch21.65891781586,21178.8
Chase Elliott18.365562094078.1
A.J. Allmendinger18.2506140504,57977.2
Kasey Kahne19.9460283424,89577.2
Erik Jones12.0227021775.6
Martin Truex Jr.20.44761582405,36975.1
Kyle Larson21.719742291,73574.7
Ryan Blaney21.0585057373.8
Austin Dillon16.01412261,24373.2

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in April of this year. Kyle Larson got off to a hot start and maintained a stranglehold on the standings lead for the first half of the season. Austin Dillon pulled his surprising, upset victory at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Ryan Blaney nabbed his first-career win at Pocono in June. Kyle Larson was surprisingly eliminated from the Chase field after Kansas this past week. Martin Truex Jr. has reeled off three big victories during the Chase. Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are trying desperately to keep pace with Truex in the championship chase entering this event, so they'll be racing for the win on Sunday at Martinsville to keep those hopes alive. 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 more surprises. Joe Gibbs Racing star Busch dominated most of the race by leading 274 laps, but it would be Penske Racing star Keselowski that would prevail by taking the lead from Busch with just 43 laps to go. It capped just 18 lead changes on the day at a short track that has produced many more lead changes in recent seasons. There's good reason to believe we could see a similar scenario develop in Sunday's First Data 500. Keselowski advanced in the Chase last week after Kansas, and that likely means he'll be looking to grab the win and punch his ticket to the championship round in Miami in a few weeks. 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 Busch, Truex, Harvick and Keselowski battling to see who can get the upper hand as we head into the closing stages of the Chase for the Cup. 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 fantasy league this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski doesn't have the resume that other Monster Energy Cup drivers have at this short track, but he's building that portfolio quickly the last couple seasons. He has nine Top 10s in 15-career starts at Martinsville Speedway, and his visit here in April yielded his first-career victory at the historic oval. The Penske Racing star has been well known for his short track prowess during his eight seasons of competition. That includes his recent three-race Martinsville Top-5 streak entering this weekend. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is probably in his best position to win the championship since his first time around back in 2012. You can bet he won't let an opportunity to advance in the Chase at one of his better tracks pass him by in the First Data 500.

Kyle Busch -
Busch will continue building his improved Martinsville resume this weekend in the First Data 500. The JGR star had it rough at this half-mile oval for the early part of his career, but that has been reversing in recent seasons. His Top 5 here in 2015 and victory here in 2016 have seemed to unleash the No. 18 team from whatever was holding them back at Martinsville Speedway. Busch has one win, 12 Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes in 24-career visits to the Virginia short track. He's led well over 1,100-career laps at the facility, and most of those have come in the past six seasons. Busch is still alive in the championship picture, so motivation shouldn't be an issue for this 500-lap event. We expect to see the No. 18 Toyota among the leaders this Sunday afternoon at the paperclip.

Kevin Harvick -
It's been a good season for the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team, and Harvick has his intentions set on claiming another championship in these final four races of 2017. While Harvick has been anything but consistent of late, he has been pretty fast each weekend he unloads the car from hauler and that's half the battle. Martinsville Speedway is one of those facilities that have been an up-and-down affair for the veteran driver. Harvick has one-career victory and 14 Top-10 finishes at the paperclip in Virginia. With a win guaranteeing an automatic spot in the final-four championship contenders at Homestead in a few weeks, we believe Harvick will elevate his game this Sunday afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson -
Our seven-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion is a nine-time winner at Martinsville, and has led well over 2,800 career laps at the paperclip-shaped track. Johnson has managed to stay alive in the Chase despite sliding all over the race track last weekend at Kansas. That brings him into the First Data 500 with the distinct possibility of punching his ticket into the Championship 4. The No. 48 team has won at Martinsville Speedway as recently as last season, however, the field has closed the gap with him over the last four seasons at this oval. No driver in the Monster Energy Cup Series has dominated a short track like Johnson has Martinsville in recent history, and we believe that's good enough to warrant contender status for this very important race.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin advanced into the Round of 8 in the Chase at Kansas with a strong Top-5 performance, and we believe he'll flip that momentum forward to Martinsville this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won five-career victories at Martinsville Speedway, and he's led over 1,300-career laps at the half-mile oval. A win here would punch his ticket into the championship round of the Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and that's a powerful bit of motivation. The No. 11 Toyota team has won here as recently as the 2015 season and you can bet the notes from that outing are still fresh in crew chief Mike Wheeler's notebook. The upside is just too good to ignore considering the success Hamlin has shown at this oval over the years.

Chase Elliott -
Now that we're starting to race for all the marbles the best is coming out of young Elliott and the No. 24 team. He's claimed three runner-up finishes and four Top-5 finishes during the Chase. Elliott appears focused like a laser beam on the prize. This will be just his fourth-career start at Martinsville, so we don't have a lot of data to review. However, his most recent outing at the short track bears the most scrutiny. Elliott qualified on the outside pole, led 20 laps and finished third in April's STP 500. He truly had a shot at the win that afternoon in the spring. We have strong reason to believe replicating that performance won't take much for this driver and team to pull off.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The pressure to advance into the next round of the Chase will definitely be a motivator for this driver and team, although Truex does get a slight downgrade this week. He's not quite the 500 lb. gorilla on short tracks that he is on intermediate ovals. Still, his Martinsville resume has improved dramatically since 2015. In his last five visits to south central Virginia, Truex has nabbed one pole, led nearly 250 laps, and claimed three Top-10 finishes. Prior to this recent streak the Furniture Row Racing star only had four Top-10 finishes in his first 18 starts at Martinsville Speedway. This surge in performance has roughly paralleled the surge in performance at the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. Truex will run up front and crack the Top 10 this Sunday, but don't expect to see him in victory lane.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
It has been an eventful, but somewhat disappointing last season of racing for Earnhardt and his No. 88 team. The NASCAR icon has overcome inconsistency and pieced together three Top-10 finishes in the last four events to build a little momentum coming into Martinsville this week. Earnhardt has always been proficient at racing this challenging bullring. The Hendrick Motorsports star picked up his first-career win at this track in 2014, and he's nabbed 18 Top-10 finishes in 34-career starts (53-percent). Earnhardt's last couple starts at Martinsville have not been that awe inspiring, but he should shake that off for the nostalgia of racing here for the last time this weekend. The career-long experience at Martinsville and current momentum of the No. 88 team point towards another Top-10 finish this Sunday afternoon.

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

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran isn't a part of the championship picture, but he has had some good finishes during the Chase. Newman has a runner-up and three Top-15 finishes in the last five events. He comes to a short track that has held a lot of success for him over the years. Martinsville Speedway has yielded three poles, one victory and 15 Top-10 finishes to the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet. Newman has been sharp even in recent visits to the paperclip with three Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to Southern Virginia. He started 11th on the grid there in April and soldiered his way to a strong eighth-place finish in the STP 500. This race sets up pretty well for Newman.

Joey Logano -
If there's been one bright spot in this tough season for Logano, it's been the short tracks. They've yielded the best and most consistent results for the No. 22 Ford team. The win and runner-up finish in both Richmond races are a good example of this fact. Logano has seven-career Top 10s at the Martinsville short track. However, five of those have come since the 2014 season. He won three-straight pole positions at this Virginia short track between 2015 and 2016 and led a combined 336 laps in those races. The No. 22 team should have some great notes from those outings and tons of incentive for a good finish given their season struggles. Logano has a lot of fantasy racing upside in this 500 lap battle.

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. However, if there's an upset candidate in the field this week, it's without a doubt this Joe Gibbs Racing star. Kenseth is has been eliminated from the Chase, but he'll be eager to tackle this short track. He has led well over 200 laps in his last three Martinsville starts combined. That has led to a pair of Top-10 finishes. The veteran driver finished ninth here in April, and that gives him Top 10s in six of his last eight Martinsville starts. Kenseth has elevated his game in the past four seasons at this half-mile oval and we expect to see those results again this Sunday afternoon.

Clint Bowyer -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has struggled of late, but all signs point to a rebound performance this weekend. Bowyer has been great on the flat tracks this season. A Top-15 finish at Phoenix early in the season was followed by a pair of Top-10 finishes at the flat New Hampshire oval this summer and fall. Bowyer's last Martinsville start in April yielded a seventh-place finish in the STP 500. The No. 14 team have been dialed-in on the flat short tracks. With his spring Top 10 Bowyer now has 13-career Top-10 finishes in 23 Martinsville starts. That's a great average of 57-percent. That's well above the norm for most drivers at this oval in the Monster Energy Cup Series. For a struggling driver and team, that record is a major confidence boost coming into this late-season race.

Erik Jones -
The Furniture Row Racing rookie has had a tough few weeks of late. His summer hot streak has faded with some recent struggles. However, Martinsville Speedway presents the driver of the No. 77 Toyota with the opportunity to hit the reset button and finish the season strong. Jones made his Cup debut at the Martinsville oval in April, and raced inside the Top 15 all afternoon before finishing a respectable 12th. We know the sample size is small, but some lessons were learned in that debut. If you're looking for a recent gauge of that flat short track ability, we only have to go back a few weeks to Jones' outing at the flat New Hampshire short track early in the Chase schedule. He qualified eighth in that race and finished a strong sixth-place. There's good reason to believe Jones will get back to his good racing ways this Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmedinger -
The journeyman driver is probably better known for his road course racing than short track performance, but Allmedinger has been coming on strong at this small oval later in his career. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has 18-career starts at Martinsville Speedway and only six Top-10 finishes to his credit. However, three of those Top 10s has come in his last three starts, with a sixth-place finish in this April's STP 500. Allmendinger hasn't cracked the Top 10 since Watkins Glen this summer, but Sunday's race is a great opportunity to get back there. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet clearly likes this half-mile oval, and it shows in his recent results.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kurt Busch -
The driver of the No. 14 Ford is two-time Martinsville winner, but those victories came 12 years apart. For the most part, the half-mile bullring has been a tremendous struggle over his 18-season career. With only five Top 10s in 34 starts, Busch checks in at a lowly 15-percent Top-10 rate at Martinsville, 21.7 average finish. More recently, the veteran driver has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last six visits to oval since his big 2014 win at the track. This has been a tough season for this driver and team, and Sunday looks like another long day at an oval where Busch has failed to establish any consistency. That makes for a long-shot roll of the dice in fantasy racing terms.

Ryan Blaney -
The pressure of the Chase has brought out the best in this young driver. Three Top 10s in the first six races have him in a spot inside the Round of 8. The only weakness of this driver and team so far in 2017 has been the short tracks. Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville have revealed this weakness this season. In three-career Martinsville starts Blaney has a pair of 19th-place and one 25th-place finish. This is a short track of major contact, and rough driving. It's clear that he's yet to figure out the best way around the track and the traffic at this oval. This Sunday could be a tough start to the Round of 8 for this talented driver and team. It's best to shy away from Blaney this week, and redeploy him in your lineups at a much friendlier intermediate oval.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports veteran rides a two-race Top-10 streak into Martinsville this weekend. There's a lot to be optimistic about for the No. 43 team as they appear to be finishing the season strong. However, this is definitely a "check status" race for Almirola. Despite some recent momentum, he's really struggled on the flat tracks this season. Loudon, New Hampshire yielded a pair of finishes outside the Top 20, and Martinsville in April was only an 18th-place finish. His career work at Martinsville Speedway shows three Top 10s in 17 starts and a 22.7 average finish. In spite of his recent surge on the bigger ovals, we have to recommend the bench this week for Almirola and the No. 43 Ford team.

Jamie McMurray -
Coming off crashes at Talladega and Kansas, McMurray finds himself eliminated from the Chase. That's a tough blow to a veteran driver that's had a pretty good season. For those hoping he'll get back into the groove this week, a word of caution. Martinsville has not been McMurray's best short track in recent visits. It's been a real mixed bag of good outings and disappointments. Three Top 10s have been offset by two finishes outside the Top 20 and one DNF, which came in April's STP 500. McMurray could prove us wrong in this one, but the trends don't look very consistent or dependable. His recent subpar finish at the similar flat oval in New Hampshire just a few weeks ago also gives us great pause.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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