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Fast Relief 500 Preview: Surviving the Bull Ring

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This weekend the Chase for the Sprint Cup takes an interesting twist. This week, the series visits Martinsville Speedway, which is the circuit's shortest track, nestled in the foothills of Southern Virginia. After visiting tracks like Kansas, Fontana, and Charlotte recently the drivers had better be prepared for the surprises that the bull ring 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 short track. 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 bull ring is one of the pivotal races that crowns NASCAR's champion.

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 Jimmie Johnson is going for his fifth straight 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 in recent seasons, and this event is a big reason why he's a four-time winner of the Sprint Cup trophy. In the table below are the loop stats for the last 11 races at Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson3.13475831,3804,996123.8
Jeff Gordon2.93296181,0345,012123.0
Denny Hamlin6.62843359093,909111.4
Tony Stewart11.12703538294,454108.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.23083633074,07398.1
Kevin Harvick17.222080573,49190.1
Kyle Busch17.83211611203,50189.9
Mark Martin15.713387272,26889.1
Ryan Newman10.923859483,09787.8
Jeff Burton16.72491752323,24087.8
Jamie McMurray17.517081433,16786.0
Clint Bowyer12.82204703,01085.8
Juan Pablo Montoya14.6171113461,49683.7
Kurt Busch21.2189108713,04881.8
Carl Edwards16.93029903,02681.0
Joey Logano15.39511065775.8
Matt Kenseth15.114028292,28575.7
Kasey Kahne19.910811201,69973.6
Brad Keselowski12.0251015772.7
David Ragan19.41313101,18570.2

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in March of this year. Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have swapped the points lead on a few occasions. Mark Martin shockingly missed the Chase field after posting five wins and challenging for the championship in 2009. Jeff Gordon, Harvick and Hamlin 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. As with any race this far into the Chase there are a lot of story lines going into the TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. 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 seven-time Martinsville winner is looking to get back to victory lane, and this week's race at the Virginia short track is the perfect opportunity for the No. 24 team. Although Gordon has been held out of victory lane at small oval since 2005, we can't emphasize enough just how well he races here. Gordon hasn't finished outside the Top 5 in the last 11 straight races at Martinsville Speedway, and that's a truly amazing statistic. Any time you race that close to the front, you stand a good chance of winning.

Jimmie Johnson
As good as Jeff Gordon is at Martinsville Speedway, teammate Johnson may be even better in every respect. He has won five of the last eight Sprint Cup events at Martinsville, and has led well over 1,000 laps during this span at the paper clip shaped track. With the championship on the line yet again, Johnson should be a very competitive driver this weekend, and for good reason. The No. 48 team's dominance at Martinsville Speedway recently is as close to perfection as one can get.

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has been one of the few drivers to compete with the Hendrick Motorsports drivers at Martinsville the last couple seasons. He has won three of the last five races at the Virginia short track, and he's been a real thorn in the side of Johnson at this facility. Hamlin led close to 200 laps and won this season's Goody's 500 in exciting fashion at Martinsville. With the Joe Gibbs Racing star trying to catch the No. 48 team in the championship chase, you can bet Hamlin will go for the checkers in this event.

Tony Stewart
Stewart showed recently at Fontana and Atlanta that the No. 14 team still has the winning touch, and that they're not dead yet in the quest for the championship. Smoke owns two career wins at Martinsville Speedway and he's led close to 1,200 laps for his career at the small oval. While his recent outings at the speedway have been forgettable, we believe momentum is on his side this weekend. If someone hopes to upset the Hendrick guys and Denny Hamlin on Sunday, it should be Stewart.

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

Carl Edwards
The No. 99 team's Top 10 binge since mid-summer has placed Edwards squarely back into championship contention. While his chances to win the title this season are slim, there is plenty of room for the Roush Fenway Racing star to post a few more Top 10's as the season winds down. Edwards has only three career Top 10's at Martinsville Speedway, but the good news is that they've all come in the last two seasons.

Ryan Newman
The short tracks have been a good set of ovals for the No. 39 team this season and for Newman over his long career. He owns three poles and nine career Top 10's at Martinsville Speedway. The Goody's 500 in March of this year yielded a fantastic fourth-place finish for Newman. That was one of three-straight Top-10 finishes for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver at this facility.

Kevin Harvick
It's been an incredible season for the No. 29 team, and Harvick has his eyes on the prize that is the Sprint Cup Series championship. While his chances of chasing Johnson down are slim, he's still going to be posting Top 10's in the hopes the Hendrick star will stumble somewhere along the way. Martinsville Speedway has yielded three Top 10's in Harvick's last six starts. In March he won the pole and led 57 laps at the small oval before bad luck forced him to a poor finish.

Clint Bowyer
The short tracks have agreed with Bowyer in his brief Sprint Cup career, and Martinsville Speedway has been no exception. The No. 33 team may be out of the running for this season's championship, but they will be looking to turn in a big performance on Sunday. Bowyer five Top-10 finishes in his last six trips to Martinsville entering this event. The Richard Childress Racing driver is running well entering this race, so all indicators point to him continuing his success at this small oval on Sunday.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The recent performance of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 team makes fantasy racing players cringe, but you have to take a long hard look at Earnhardt whenever the series visits Martinsville Speedway. He owns eight career Top 5's and 10 Top 10's at the Virginia bull ring. His recent numbers have been good enough to warrant fantasy consideration. Earnhardt qualified eighth and finished 15th there in spring's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. The risk is relatively small and the fantasy racing upside is too good to ignore.

Jamie McMurray
The No. 1 team is looking to follow up their win at Charlotte with another great run at Martinsville. This weekend may be the time when the spotlight shines on the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team again. Short tracks have been good for McMurray this season. He cracks the Top 10 at a stellar 60 percent career rate at Martinsville Speedway, so the variables are in place for a good finish in the TUMS Fast Relief 500.

Jeff Burton
The Chase for the championship is a moot point after Burton's slips at Kansas, Fontana and Charlotte. We don't expect the Richard Childress Racing driver to be too rattled at Martinsville. Flat tracks are generally good facilities for Burton and short tracks as well. Burton is a one-time winner at Martinsville, and he led a whopping 140 laps here in the spring before a flat tire ended his chances to win.

Casey Mears
Since taking over the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota, Mears has been a regular face in the Top 25. This small race team won't likely challenge the Top 15, but the journeyman driver is capable of helping fantasy racing players in very deep and weekly lineup leagues. Mears posted a pair of Top 10's at Martinsville in 2008 while racing in his last season for owner Rick Hendrick. He also cracked the Top 20 in his last start at the small over for owner Richard Childress. Mears hasn't recorded a single DNF in 14 career starts at the speedway.

Paul Menard
Menard has been on quite a streak since the Chase for the Cup began. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has recorded two of his five Top-10 finishes this season since the Chase started at Loudon. The No. 98 Ford has qualified well and been seen regularly racing up front the last several weeks. Martinsville Speedway should be yet another good start for Menard. His last start at the small oval in March of this year yielded a career-best 14th-place finish at the facility.

Martin Truex Jr.
Truex has gotten better with each start at Martinsville over his career. His last four starts at the Virginia bull ring have yielded his only two Top-10 finishes at the facility. Truex is riding a three-race Top 20 streak into this event, so the No. 56 Toyota team has been coming on of late and building momentum for next season. Truex should crack the Top 15 in the TUMS Fast Relief 500.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kyle Busch
Busch is fighting to finish in a respectable position in the final standings, since the championship is now out of reach. The JGR ace's historical struggles in the Chase races are well documented, so it will likely be a long Sunday for the driver of the No. 18 Toyota. Martinsville Speedway has held more heartache than success Busch. Busch has cracked the Top 10 only once in his last five trips to the short track. It's likely going to be another challenging weekend for the talented driver.

A.J. Allmendinger
Allmendinger has been a fantasy racing "go to guy" this season, so it's hard to put him in the flops list on any occasion. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been a fixture in the Top 15 the last several races, but he's facing an uphill battle this Sunday. Allmendinger has never really carved out a niche at Martinsville Speedway. In six career starts at the small Virginia oval he's finished outside the Top 30 four times and only cracked the Top 10 once. The odds are too great for a typical performance this weekend.

Kurt Busch
If you don't avoid any other driver this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, at the very least take a pass on Busch and the No. 2 Dodge team. This may be counter to conventional wisdom considering that Busch has such a good short track resume over his career, and even one career victory at the Virginia bull ring. Still, the laundry list of poor finishes at this small oval are stacked to the ceiling for Busch. In 20 career starts he's only cracked the Top 10 four times, the last in 2005. That averages out to an uninspiring 21.6 average finish at Martinsville.

Elliott Sadler
While as a native Virginian Sadler has to be happy visiting Martinsville Speedway this weekend, the stats suggest he may wish he were somewhere else on Sunday. While he's close to home, he has to also cringe at the prospects for his No. 19 Dodge team in the TUMS Fast Relief 500. The paper clip shaped track has been a real boggle for Sadler. He has only three career Top 10's at the facility in 23 starts, and Sadler's last eight visits to Martinsville have only netted one Top-20 finish.