Goody’s 500 Preview: The Eliminator Round

Goody’s 500 Preview: The Eliminator Round

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

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 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 Eliminator round of the Chase, the stakes will be very high in this 500-lap brawl. Among those Hendrick Motorsports star, Jeff Gordon, comes to mind right away. He claims Martinsville as his best short track and who can blame him? Gordon owns eight career victories at the half-mile paperclip. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet will definitely be defending his home turf this weekend in an effort to win his fifth 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 Gordon is going for his fifth title this season. The Chase schedule sets up well for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet and Martinsville is one of the key races in this 10 to win the championship. Gordon has absolutely dominated here over the years. Only his teammate Jimmie Johnson has more Martinsville hardware and accomplishments among the Sprint Cup ranks. In the table below are the loop stats for the last 19 races at Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson3.86801,0102,5758,833124.8
Jeff Gordon5.16911,0341,7398,375119.0
Denny Hamlin8.86095801,1537,007109.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.66684714427,39399.9
Tony Stewart13.84373828446,24497.0
Kyle Busch15.96164094876,58796.1
Clint Bowyer12.45692893236,18394.6
Kevin Harvick14.45782472176,34893.2
Jeff Burton16.44642933715,36787.4
Ryan Newman14.85281471365,41986.9
Brad Keselowski13.427366102,48084.5
Matt Kenseth13.63871733684,82684.2
Jamie McMurray18.0407150745,01384.1
Joey Logano14.838062392,79582.3
Carl Edwards15.3555142315,18181.4
Brian Vickers18.7445102274,10980.3
Kurt Busch20.2420150944,45179.0
Kasey Kahne20.6314255133,40777.7
Austin Dillon15.010007772.0
Marcos Ambrose19.522668631,80170.8

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in March of this year. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have swapped the points lead. Defending champion, Jimmie Johnson, was shockingly eliminated from the Chase field last week at Talladega. Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are trying desperately to keep pace with Kevin Harvick 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 excitement. Johnson dominated most of the event, but he couldn't hold off several challengers in the closing laps. It would be Kurt Busch who would surprise the six-time champion and take the checkers first in the STP 500. It capped 33 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. Johnson and Busch are both eliminated from the Chase, but that doesn't mean they won't be racing for the win this weekend. 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 Gordon, Keselowski, Harvick and Logano 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 league this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jeff Gordon -
The eight-time Martinsville winner is not hardly out of the championship picture just yet. While Gordon is a bit of a longshot compared to how well some of the other contenders are performing, he's still got a lot to race for in this Martinsville event. Gordon has led over 3,500 laps at Martinsville Speedway and he's posted a staggering 34 Top 10's for his career at this facility. That works out to an amazing 79-percent Top-10 rate and 7.0 average finish over 43 career starts. Gordon won this event one year ago in a very strong performance, so his success is not only long-standing but also very recent at this short track. He has to be one of the top contenders to win this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson -
Our six-time Sprint Cup Series champion is an eight-time winner at Martinsville, and has led well over 2,700 career laps at the paper clip shaped track. Even though Johnson was booted from the Chase last weekend at Talladega, he won't dial down his performance at this oval one bit. The No. 48 team has won two of the last four races at this oval and they've finished in the Top 5 in all four events. Johnson's performance here in the spring was nothing less than dominant. He led 296 laps, but fell just short of the win with the runner-up finish in the STP 500. No driver in the Sprint Cup Series has dominated an oval like Johnson has Martinsville in the last 12 years.

Kevin Harvick -
It's been a stellar season for the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team, and Harvick has his intentions set on challenging for the championship in these final four races of 2014. 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 12 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.

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 still alive in the championship chase with his brilliant runner-up finish at Talladega last week. This driver and team are peaking at the right time. Kenseth has led 334 laps in his last three Martinsville starts combined. That has led to a runner-up finish and sixth-place finish in the last two starts alone. 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 the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

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 five Top 10's in nine career starts at Martinsville Speedway, and his visit here one year ago yielded an impressive fourth-place finish. The Penske Racing star has been well known for his short track prowess during his five seasons of competition. That should translate well to the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. The driver of the No. 2 Ford showed everyone last week at Talladega that he can perform when the pressure is on, so Keselowski should be racing with the leaders at this Virginia short track.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin needs to have a big performance at the Virginia short track this weekend if he hopes to stay relevant in the championship picture. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won four career victories at Martinsville Speedway, and he's led over 1,100 career laps at the half-mile oval. A win here would move Hamlin into the championship round of the Chase at Homestead, so the motivation will be easy to find. 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.

Joey Logano -
The championship is tantalizingly close for the Penske Racing driver. Can Logano turn up the level of performance and make it happen? A great finish at Martinsville would go a long way towards making it happen. Logano has only three career Top 10's at the Martinsville short track. However, one of those came here in March in the STP 500. He led 39 laps and finished fourth that afternoon in March. The No. 22 team should have some good notes from that outing and tons of incentive with so much on the line this weekend. Logano has been redefining his history at many of these tracks since joining Penske Racing, and this one is no exception. He should be dialed-in on the Top 10 in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500.

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 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 four Top-5 and 11 Top-10 finishes in his 17 career trips to Martinsville entering this event show his expertise at this small oval. The Michael Waltrip Racing star rides a five-race Martinsville Top-10 streak into this weekend's race. He shouldn't have much trouble extending that streak to six.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is coming off the disappointment of not advancing in the Chase at Talladega last weekend. Earnhardt should shake that off as we visit one of his favorite short tracks this weekend. He owns 11 career Top 5's and 16 Top 10's at the Virginia bullring. He has been the closest driver in the field at upsetting the Martinsville big three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon in recent races. Earnhardt finished ninth at the similar flat oval of Loudon, New Hampshire at the start of the Chase, and he finished third earlier this season at the Martinsville oval. The risk is relatively small and the fantasy racing upside is too good to ignore.

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 has started to reverse in recent visits. Busch has four Top 5's, including one runner-up finish in his last eight visits to Martinsville Speedway. He's led 367 laps during this brief span and shown he can rub fenders with Johnson and Gordon here. Busch is not in the championship picture anymore, but motivation shouldn'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.

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 Martinsville Speedway. 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 10's at Martinsville Speedway. With the championship still well within reach for the No. 31 team, we should see a very urgent and motivated Newman this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet is our last Martinsville winner. He pulled off the big upset of Johnson in March at this half-mile oval. Busch will be challenged to equal that task again this Sunday. While a win is not likely, this team and driver are performing well enough to slip into the Top 10 this Sunday. Busch is a two-time winner at this historic short track, and he's coming off the solid Top 10 at Talladega this past weekend. The Stewart Haas Racing star is clearly gathering momentum for a big 2015 season, so he should finish out the stretch run of this season very strong.

Marcos Ambrose -
This veteran driver is finishing his NASCAR career strong at the Martinsville oval. Ambrose has only two career Top 10's at this short track, but they've both come in his last three starts here. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver led 22 laps and finished a brilliant fifth-place at Martinsville earlier this season in the STP 500. This is not the only uptick in Ambrose's performance in recent seasons. In fact, his short track performance in general has picked up as his career has worn on. Ambrose should certainly challenge the Top 10 in Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500.

Jamie McMurray -
Talladega heartbreak aside, the veteran driver should rebound this week at Martinsville. McMurray should make a good start at the flat short track. The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has made 23 starts at this speedway and he boasts one pole position and an impressive 12 Top-10 finishes. That's a tick better than 52-percent for this steady driver. Two of those Top 10's have come in his last three trips to southern Virginia. Given his record here and his current level of performance, another Top-10 finish is quite possible for the No. 1 Chevrolet team.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran is struggling through to finish his first season with the organization. The last few weeks has seen the No. 78 Chevrolet compete at a subpar level. With only five Top 10's to this point in the season, Truex has fallen to a depth in the driver standings he's not seen in years. He is coming off a 27th-place finish at Talladega, and is struggling coming into this 500-lap short track event. Truex's career numbers at Martinsville Speedway show four Top 10's in 17 starts and an average finish around 22.2. He's not cracked the Top 10 here since the 2012 season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
With his shocking failure to qualify at Talladega last weekend, Stenhouse has fallen into shaky ground. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes to a tough oval to reverse his recent fortunes. Martinsville Speedway has held nothing but struggles for the young driver during his brief Sprint Cup Series career. With finishes of 25th-, 31st- and 40th-place in his three career starts, you can easily see that this facility has been very difficult for the No. 17 Ford team. Stenhouse might have some good Top-20 performances left over the final few races, but not this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star advanced in the Chase last weekend at Talladega by the slimmest of margins. Kahne faces an uphill battle in the next round to stay alive and the lineup of tracks will be tough. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has had more bad luck at Martinsville than Kahne would care to remember. With only four Top 10's in 21 career starts, the veteran driver checks in at a lowly 21-percent Top-10 rate at this short track. Kahne's last two starts at this half-mile oval have netted 27th- and 22nd-place finishes. That's far worse than we expect of this driver and team.

Kyle Larson -
The dynamic rookie hasn't shown up in the slow down list most of the season. The truth has been that he's raced like a driver many years his senior during this first season of Sprint Cup action. However, if there's a week to bench the Chip Ganassi Racing rookie, this would be it. One of the few bumps in the road this season for the No. 42 team has been Martinsville Speedway. Larson fell two laps down to the leaders and finished 27th here in March in his only career start. Chances are he'll improve this time around, but it's too risky to justify a fantasy racing start when Larson is much more proven on the upcoming intermediate ovals.

RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only NASCAR Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire NASCAR fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
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.
YellaWood 500 Preview: The Wild Card of the Chase
YellaWood 500 Preview: The Wild Card of the Chase
NASCAR Barometer:  William Byron Snatches Texas Victory
NASCAR Barometer: William Byron Snatches Texas Victory
NASCAR DFS:  AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400
NASCAR DFS: AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400
Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 Preview: Round of 12 Begins
Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 Preview: Round of 12 Begins
NASCAR Barometer: Denny Hamlin Lands Third Bristol Victory
NASCAR Barometer: Denny Hamlin Lands Third Bristol Victory
NASCAR DFS:  Bass Pro Shops Night Race
NASCAR DFS: Bass Pro Shops Night Race