Goody's Fast Relief 500 Preview: The Round of 8

Goody's Fast Relief 500 Preview: The Round of 8

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 superspeedways and intermediate ovals for most of the Chase for the Cup, we swing to the other extreme for this week's Goody's Fast Relief 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 straightaways 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 chase 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

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 superspeedways and intermediate ovals for most of the Chase for the Cup, we swing to the other extreme for this week's Goody's Fast Relief 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 straightaways 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 chase 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 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 seventh 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 seventh 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. Only Denny Hamlin can come close to the amount of accomplishments and Martinsville hardware among the Sprint Cup ranks. In the table below are the loop stats for the last 23 races at Martinsville Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jeff Gordon5.08631,1541,9259,789119.5
Jimmie Johnson7.07921,0772,5759,880117.8
Denny Hamlin9.57897101,3158,468108.1
Kyle Busch14.57305028398,03398.8
Tony Stewart13.55434068707,31996.0
Kevin Harvick14.87214464817,93595.4
Clint Bowyer14.26973023567,11290.2
Brad Keselowski14.74702211714,04389.7
Joey Logano14.64991894354,43589.1
Matt Kenseth14.05772784266,59087.1
Ryan Newman14.36291651386,43186.5
Jamie McMurray17.15682211586,46785.9
Carl Edwards15.1662184446,00381.4
Kurt Busch20.95631761585,97680.6
Kasey Kahne20.6412273424,19777.1
A.J. Allmendinger19.5455121453,84075.2
Martin Truex Jr.21.2428108514,39672.1
Greg Biffle19.345579393,75970.7
Kyle Larson24.210922089069.7
Austin Dillon18.0746662668.8

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in April of this year. Kevin Harvick maintained a stranglehold on the standings lead for most of the way. Martin Truex Jr. pulled his super-dominant victory at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Kyle Larson was surprisingly eliminated from the Chase field after Dover. Harvick has reeled off two big next-round-advancing victories during the Chase. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are trying desperately to keep pace with 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 surprises.

Joe Gibbs Racing star Busch dominated nearly from wire-to-wire and led 352 laps en route to his first-career Martinsville 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 Goody's Fast Relief 500. Busch advanced in the Chase last week at Talladega, 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, Hamlin, Harvick and Johnson 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 -
Busch will continue building his improved Martinsville resume this weekend in the Goody's Fast Relief 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 win here in the spring puts a resounding explanation point on that statement. Busch has one win, 10 Top-5 and 11 Top-10 finishes in 22-career visits to Martinsville Speedway. He's led close to 850-career laps at the Virginia short track, and most of those have come in the past five seasons. Busch is well and 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 setting the pace Sunday afternoon at the paperclip.

Kevin Harvick -
It's been a strong 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 2016. 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.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin barely advanced to the Round of 8 in the Chase at Talladega 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 to 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 big to ignore considering the success Hamlin has shown at this oval over the years.

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 paperclip-shaped track. Johnson has managed to advance beyond the first round of the Chase for the first time in his career, which is hard to believe but true. That brings him into the Goody's Fast Relief 500 with some extra motivation. The No. 48 team has won at Martinsville Speedway as recently as 2013, however, more recent visits have been somewhat disappointing for this team that does so well at this oval historically. Johnson's performance here in the spring was a bit better with a respectable ninth-place finish. No driver in the Sprint Cup Series has dominated an oval like Johnson has Martinsville in recent history, and we'll 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

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 alive in the Chase for the Cup, and he's primed to be a major player at Martinsville Speedway. He has led 94 laps in his last five Martinsville starts combined. That has led to a group of three Top-10 finishes. The veteran driver led 45 laps here in April, but faded to finish 15th, but we believe he'll make up for that this time around. Kenseth has elevated his game in the past three seasons at this half-mile oval and we expect to see those results again this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski doesn't have the resume that other Sprint Cup drivers have at this short track, but he's building that portfolio quickly. He has seven Top 10's in 13-career starts at Martinsville Speedway, and his visit here in April yielded an impressive fifth-place finish in the STP 500. The Penske Racing star has been well known for his short track prowess during his seven seasons of competition. That should translate well into the Goody's Fast Relief 500. The driver of the No. 2 Ford put on a dominant performance at Talladega last weekend before the engine failure knocked him out of the race and the Chase. He was surprisingly upbeat in the post-race interview and said he was ready to go get some more wins. Keselowski will be ready to race at Martinsville Speedway.

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 five-career Top 10's at the Martinsville short track. However, three of those have come in the last three seasons. He has won the last three-straight pole positions at this Virginia short track 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 with so much on the line this weekend. Logano has been improving with each visit to the Martinsville short track, and we believe he's finally ready to win here.

Jeff Gordon -
The nine-time Martinsville winner just thought he was finished racing at this short track last year when he took the checkers first in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. The injury to Dale Earnhardt Jr. has put the legend back in action with relief driver duty in the No. 88 Chevrolet, and poised to make just one more start at one of his best short tracks. Gordon has led over 3,700 laps at Martinsville Speedway and he's posted a staggering 37 Top 10's for his career at this facility. That works out to an amazing 80-percent Top-10 rate and 6.8 average finish over 46-career starts. Gordon also won this event in 2013 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 safest fantasy racing picks in the field this weekend.

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 been racing pretty good during the Chase. Newman has fourth-, 12th- and 14th-place finishes each of the last three 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 14 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 fifth on the grid there in April and soldiered his way to a respectable 10th-place finish in the STP 500. This race sets up pretty well for Newman.

Kurt Busch -
The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet is a recent Martinsville winner. He pulled off the big upset of Jimmie Johnson in March of 2014 at this half-mile oval. Busch will be looking to repeat that success this Sunday with all the Chase stakes on the line. 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 impressive Top 5 at Talladega this past weekend. He has Top-10 finishes in three of his last five events and is looking to kick off the Round of 8 strong. The Stewart Haas Racing star is clearly gathering momentum for a big push for the title, so he should finish out the stretch run of this season very well.

Carl Edwards -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran is having a pretty good season. Edwards is still alive in the Chase for the Cup, and he's hoping to be racing for the championship by the time we reach Homestead. Martinsville Speedway has not been a track of any particular success for this driver and team, but Edwards bucked those trends in April when he raced to a strong sixth-place finish in the STP 500. He qualified 25th that weekend, but had no trouble navigating the field to that impressive finish. With the stakes being at incredible highs this weekend, the No. 19 team will be on their game and challenging to repeat their spring success at the Martinsville short track.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star had a bump in his hot streak this past weekend at Talladega. An off-road excursion would cost Kahne as he would finish a disappointing 35th at that huge oval. He looks to rebound to recent form this week with a start at NASCAR's smallest track in Martinsville. The change should do the No. 5 team some good. They've been pretty strong of late on the circuit's short tracks. Kahne has finishes of 13th-, sixth- and ninth-place at Bristol, Richmond and Loudon since the late summer. Martinsville rewarded Kahne last season with 11th- and ninth-place finishes. He qualified on the outside pole here in April before the breaks fell away and he finished 22nd. Kahne should be surprisingly good in this 500-lap battle.

A.J. Allmedinger -
The journeyman driver is probably better known for his road course racing than short track, but Allmedinger has been coming on strong at this small oval later in his career. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has 16-career starts at Martinsville Speedway and only four Top-10 finishes to his credit. However, three of those Top 10's has come since the 2012 season, with a pair of 11th-place finishes during that span mixed in too. Allmendinger tied a career-best Martinsville finish of second-place here in April, when he put on a dazzling performance. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet clearly likes this half-mile oval, and it shows in his recent results.

Paul Menard -
It's been an unremarkable season for Menard and the No. 27 team, but this should be an uptick weekend for sure for the Richard Childress Racing driver. Menard has 13th- and 20th-place finishes in each of the last two weeks, so his level of performance has been decent. The veteran driver has turned it up a notch at the Martinsville oval later in his career. Menard has a pair of Top 10's and four Top 15's in his last five visits to Martinsville Speedway. His most recent appearance netted an impressive fourth-place qualifying effort and an equally impressive eighth-place finish in April's STP 500. We expect Menard to be an outperform candidate again in the Goody's Fast Relief 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Clint Bowyer -
The short tracks have been a big part of Bowyer's career-long success. Martinsville Speedway is no exception with 12 Top-10 finishes in 21 starts. However, since his career at Michael Waltrip Racing went on the skids and having moved to the much smaller HScott Motorsports team, things have been a struggle on the short tracks. Bowyer's last three visits to the Virginia short track have netted 13th-, 43rd- and 25th-place finishes. That's also been indicative of his late-season on the short tracks in 2016. Finishes of 31st-, 22nd- and 22nd-place have dogged him at the tracks of Bristol, Richmond and Loudon. The No. 15 Chevrolet team is one to avoid in this Sunday's race at Martinsville.

Chase Elliott -
The impressive rookie saw his Chase for the Cup hopes end at Talladega this past week. It wasn't for a lack of effort or speed. Elliott led 9 laps and mixed up with the leaders for most of the race before finishing 12th. The short tracks for the most part have been a puzzle for the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Elliott has only one Top 10 and an average finish of 17.7 on the circuit's bull rings, compared to 14 Top 10's and an average finish of 16.2 across all the others. Bristol would be about the only exception to his struggles. Elliott has two starts at the Martinsville oval and they're 38th- and 20th-place finishes. He was conspicuously missing from the action at the front here in April for the entire 500 laps. It's probably a good idea to keep the young driver benched for this event.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
With his surprising Top-5 finish at Talladega last weekend, Stenhouse has been on a pretty good roll of late. The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes to a tough oval to keep his recent streak going. Martinsville Speedway has held nothing but struggles for the young driver during his brief Sprint Cup Series career. With only one Top-20 finish in seven-career starts, the results just have come for the No. 17 team. That works out to a lowly 31.7 average finish across the seven starts. Stenhouse might have some good Top-20 performances left over the final few races of this season, but not this weekend.

Tony Stewart -
It has been an eventful, but somewhat disappointing last season of racing for Smoke and his No. 14 team. The NASCAR icon grabbed a win at the Sonoma road course this summer, but his campaign has been plagued with inconsistency and up-and-down performances. The short tracks have been particularly difficult. Despite Stewart's three-career wins and 17 Top-10 finishes at this half-mile oval, we have to recommend the bench for the veteran driver this weekend. Stewart has only nabbed two Top 10's in his last six visits to Southern Virginia. His recent short track performances indicate a potential rough outing this weekend. Finishes of 30th-, 33rd- and 23rd-place at Bristol, Richmond and Loudon don't bode well for the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet.

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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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