This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
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
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 Joe Gibbs Racing star, Kyle Busch, comes to mind right away. He has been improving dramatically at this oval the last couple seasons, and has won two of the last five Martinsville races. This visit to Virginia could be perfect timing for the No.18 Toyota team.
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 16 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 27 races at Martinsville Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Martin Truex Jr.||19.0||532||215||244||6,374||77.7|
A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in March of this year. Kyle Busch got on a roll and won three straight races. Erik Jones pulled his surprising, upset victory at Daytona Fourth of July weekend. Ryan Blaney nabbed the first ever win on the Charlotte Roval course. Brad Keselowski was surprisingly eliminated from the Chase field after Kansas this past week. Chase Elliott has reeled off two big victories during the Chase. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch are trying desperately to keep pace with the big three and Elliott 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. Penske Racing driver Ryan Blaney would dominate a large portion of the race and lead 145 laps, but it would be Stewart Haas Racing veteran Clint Bowyer that would prevail by taking the lead with 114 laps to go and cruising to the win. It capped just 11 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. Bowyer 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 Elliott 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
Kyle Busch - The Round of 8 begins and Busch has his game face on. He was all business last week at Kansas finishing runner-up to Chase Elliott, and now he sets his sights on a championship round qualifying win at Martinsville Speedway. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has been improving dramatically at this track since the 2015 season. Busch has two wins, 14 Top-5 and 15 Top-10 finishes in 26-career visits to the Virginia short track. He's led well over 1,300-career laps at the facility, and most of those have come in the past seven seasons. Busch's two wins have come in the last five starts, and he rides a strong six-race Martinsville Top-5 streak into this weekend's action. There's no doubt about it, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team is the team to beat this weekend.
Kevin Harvick - It's been a great 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 2018. 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 16 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, and coming off the strong Kansas performance we believe Harvick will elevate his game this Sunday afternoon.
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 two victories and four Top-10 finishes during the Chase. Elliott appears focused like a laser beam on the prize. This will be just his seventh-career start at Martinsville, so we don't have a lot of data to review. However, he had a very strong outing here in this event one year ago. Elliott led 123 laps and appeared destined for the win before a late-race incident with Denny Hamlin denied the No. 24 team of the victory. Elliott finished a steady ninth at Martinsville in the spring, but this is a much stronger driver and team right now. The young Hendrick Motorsports star is not to be underestimated in this Sunday's First Data 500.
Clint Bowyer - The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has been inconsistent of late, but he managed to advance in the Chase after Kansas last weekend. The good news is that we're visiting one of his better short tracks this weekend. Bowyer's last Martinsville start in March was a dominant performance in which he led 215 laps and walked away with his first Martinsville win. He now has 15 Top 10's in 25-career starts at this oval, which is a strong 60-percent rate. Bower rides a three-race Martinsville Top-10 streak into Sunday's action. You can bet that the team will bring a similar set up and the same speed they brought to Virginia in March for the STP 500. Bowyer knows he needs to go for broke to win and advance to the championship round of the Chase.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
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 seven visits to south central Virginia, Truex has nabbed two poles, led nearly 250 laps, and claimed two Top-5 and five 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.
Joey Logano - The Penske Racing star comes to Martinsville riding a three-race Top-10 streak and in good position in the Chase standings. Logano will look to take his first step towards Homestead this weekend, and hopeful to challenge for his first championship. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has been fast in recent Martinsville Speedway outings. He has four poles, four Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his last nine starts at this facility. Logano qualified third and finished sixth in March at the Martinsville short track. That level of performance and finish are good expectations for this driver and team this weekend in the First Data 500.
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 past couple seasons. He has one win and 11 Top 10's in 17-career starts at Martinsville Speedway, and his visit here in March yielded a steady 10th-place finish at the historic oval. The Penske Racing star has been well known for his short track prowess during his nine seasons of competition. That includes his recent five-race Martinsville Top-10 streak entering this weekend. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is eliminated from the Chase, but his desire to finish well and perform with the best in the series this weekend is at a high point. We look for Keselowski to race with the leaders this weekend.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is another driver eliminated from the Chase, but not to be underestimated at this Virginia short track. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won five-career victories at Martinsville Speedway, and he's led over 1,500-career laps at the half-mile oval. A win here would help ease the suffering of a tough season, and that motivation will be strong. The No. 11 Toyota team has won here as recently as the 2015 season and his career 72-percent Top-10 rate at Martinsville speaks volumes. Hamlin finished seventh in this event one year ago, and led 111 laps here in the spring. The upside is just too good to ignore considering the success Hamlin has shown at this oval over the years.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Martinsville who can provide a solid finish
Ryan Blaney - Blaney struggled in his first three starts at Martinsville Speedway, but the young driver has begun to turn the corner at this facility of late. His last two starts have yielded eighth- and third-place finishes. The better of those two was this March when the driver of the No. 12 Ford led a surprising 145 laps and set the pace much of that event. Short tracks have been a real challenge for Penske Racing driver Blaney, but we've begun to see this turn in the opposite direction in 2018. We can only imagine that the notes and the setup from March's STP 500 are still fresh in Blaney and crew chief Jeremy Bullins' note book. They should be strong again in Sunday's First Data 500.
Alex Bowman - For Bowman you'll have to discount his career record at this oval a bit, and look more intensely at his last Martinsville outing. His four prior starts came with ill-equipped teams, but his start here in March came with his No. 88 Chevrolet team. They have had a good record over the years at this oval with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and they continued that excellence with Bowman in the spring. He qualified 16th on the starting gird and peddled to an impressive seventh-place finish in the STP 500. That's been pretty indicative of this young driver's short track performances in 2018. While Bowman suffered the blow of being eliminated from the Chase last weekend at Kansas, he should rebound nicely in Sunday's 500-lap battle at Martinsville.
Aric Almirola - The impressive Stewart Haas Racing veteran has every motivation to perform well in this Sunday's First Data 500. Almirola is alive in the Chase and looking to advance to Homestead to race for the championship. Martinsville Speedway has not been his best short track over the years, but he hasn't been all bad here either. In fact, his last four finishes have been a pair of Top-15's and four Top-20 finishes. Almirola was a steady 14th-place in March's STP 500, and that's been about his high water mark at Martinsville of late. With everything relating to the Chase on the line this Sunday, we expect Almirola to step up his game in this very important race.
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 been eliminated from the Chase, so championship hopes are not in the picture. However, his years of performance at this oval is unquestionable. Johnson seems to have slipped from atop his dominant pedestal at Martinsville Speedway. He no longer is the driver to beat each time we visit here. However, he's been a steady performer here the last three seasons. With on win, two Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes in his last six starts, this track yields good, but not great performances for the No. 48 Chevrolet team.
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 one Top-`0 and four Top-15 finishes in the last six 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 six trips to Southern Virginia. In this event one year ago the veteran driver finished 14th, and that has been pretty much the floor of late for Newman at this facility. He should be a Top-15 finisher again 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 20-career starts at Martinsville Speedway and only seven Top-10 finishes to his credit. However, four of those Top 10's have come in his last five starts, with an eighth-place finish in March's STP 500. Allmendinger has cracked the Top 10 in two of the last four events (Charlotte Roval and Talladega) so this veteran driver is performing well right now. 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 - Despite being a two-time Martinsville winner, this short track really hasn't been one of Busch's best ovals. With only five Top-10 finishes in 36-career starts, he checks in at a lowly 14-percent rate and 21.4 average finish. Busch hasn't cracked the Top 10 here since he won at the small oval in 2014. That's an eight-race Top-10 drought at Martinsville speedway for the Stewart Haas Racing veteran. Busch labored to an 11th-place finish here in the spring, and that's been his best effort in a long time at Martinsville Speedway. Clearly, this Virginia short track has been a major challenge for Busch over the years, and there's a much greater chance of mediocrity this weekend than excellence.
Darrell Wallace Jr. - This has been a long, tough season for the Richard Petty Motorsports rookie. While Wallace has had some successes along the way, and many things to celebrate, there have been a lot of bumps in the road too. In particular, Wallace is struggling to close out the season. With only one Top-20 finish in his last 14 starts, the young driver has settled to a lowly 27th-place in the driver point standings entering this weekend. Wallace's Martinsville debut in March was a tough outing. He started a respectable 19th on the grid, but ran into many problems and finished 34th in his first Martinsville race. Superspeedways set up much better for this young driver and team, and Wallace should be avoided for now on short tracks.
Erik Jones - The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has been a real fantasy racing asset this season on the intermediate ovals. However, Jones' performance on the short tracks has been more miss than hit. Despite riding a three-race Top-10 streak into this weekend, we have to recommend against starting the No. 20 Toyota team at the Martinsville short track. Jones has three-career starts here and finishes of 12th-, 26th- and 17th-place. The latter of those came in this March's STP 500. Just staying on the lead lap here has been a challenge for the driver of the No. 20 Toyota. Jones has some major fantasy racing appeal in the coming events like Texas and Homestead, but this is clearly a week to put him on the bench and save those starts for later.
Jamie McMurray - Coming off poor finishes in five of the six Chase races, the veteran driver is reeling coming to Martinsville Speedway this week. For a driver wrapping up his racing relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing, that's a really tough way to go out of the No. 1 Chevrolet. 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. Two Top 10's have been offset by four finishes outside the Top 20 and one DNF in the last six starts at this speedway. McMurray could prove us wrong in this one, but the trends don't look very consistent or dependable. His 26th-place finish in the spring at Martinsville Speedway also gives us great pause.