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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 another diverse turn. This week the series visits Martinsville Speedway, which is the circuit's shortest track, nestled in the foothills of Southern Virginia. After visiting the largest oval on the series this past weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, we swing to the other extreme for this week's TUMS Fast Relief 500. With the big shift in racing style, 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 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 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 sixth 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 five-time winner of the Sprint Cup trophy. In the table below are the loop stats for the last 13 races at Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson3.84686351,4455,950121.9
Jeff Gordon4.44286781,1275,851119.7
Denny Hamlin6.63774141,0384,853113.0
Tony Stewart13.82993618304,905102.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.83704004144,78598.9
Kyle Busch15.64062172714,38494.3
Kevin Harvick14.83001691604,09193.1
Jeff Burton16.73262663663,89389.3
Mark Martin13.6201119272,70389.3
Ryan Newman13.1306100833,71388.8
Jamie McMurray16.2236108743,84687.4
Clint Bowyer14.7294109913,62686.7
Juan Pablo Montoya13.9278122462,27984.6
Carl Edwards16.339010233,72181.1
Joey Logano13.01791701,22581.0
Kurt Busch20.4230111713,28179.4
Matt Kenseth14.419035292,66976.8
Brian Vickers19.72494102,52976.5
Kasey Kahne20.913211911,90373.1
Brad Keselowski13.7506038472.4

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in April of this year. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have swapped the points lead on a few occasions. Clint Bowyer shockingly missed making the Chase field after a late-summer slump. Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Harvick are trying desperately to keep pace with Edwards in the championship chase entering this event, so they'll be racing for the win on Sunday at Martinsville to keep those hopes intact. If this week's race plays out like the spring installment at Martinsville, we should be in for some excitement. Harvick outdueled Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Busch in a three-car battle to the stripe. It capped 31 lead changes on the day and a new record for Martinsville Speedway. There's good reason to believe we could see a similar battle develop in Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500. As with any race this far into the Chase there are a lot of story lines going into this event 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

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 Edwards down are debatable, he's still going to pull out all the stops in the hopes the Roush Fenway Racing star will stumble somewhere along the way. Harvick won the April race at this small oval in thrilling style, and he finished in the Top 3 in this event one year ago. The RCR veteran has been on a roll at Martinsville the last few visits, so momentum is on his side.

Kyle Busch -
Busch is fighting to keep his slim championship hopes alive, so the sense of urgency should go up a notch this Sunday afternoon. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has not been a consistent performer at Martinsville Speedway over the years, but his three Top 5's in the last four trips to Southern Virginia are beginning to get notice. Busch led a career-best 151 laps and finished third in this season's Goody's Fast Relief 500. He was in the running to win right up until the last 10 laps of that event. Considering what's at stake this time around, we believe the No. 18 Toyota team can find that magic again.

Jimmie Johnson -
Our defending Sprint Cup Series champion is six-time winner at Martinsville, and has led well over 1,600 career laps at the paper clip shaped track. The No. 48 team's last victory at this small oval was in 2009, so Johnson's dominance has slipped somewhat. However, with the championship on the line yet again, Johnson should be a very competitive driver this weekend. He led 65 laps and finished a subpar 11th in this April's Goody's Fast Relief 500, so the pressure to perform should be on. Johnson has a knack of stepping up his performance when everything is on the line.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has been struggling to find consistency as well as fantasy racing relevance in the last third of this season. He has been one of the few drivers to compete right alongside with the Hendrick Motorsports drivers at Martinsville the last few seasons. Hamlin has won three of the last four races at the Virginia short track, and he's led over 1,000 career circuits at the half-mile oval. Hamlin led 89 laps and finished an uncharacteristic 12th in this season's spring race at Martinsville. Despite the Joe Gibbs Racing star trying to rediscover his mo-jo, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him win this event.

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

Carl Edwards -
If Edwards wants to draw one step closer to his first Sprint Cup Series championship, then he needs a good run at Martinsville this week. The No. 99 team's Top 10 binge since mid-summer has placed Edwards squarely atop the championship contenders list. While his career stats at the Martinsville oval aren't that impressive, Edwards' more recent performances have been much more noteworthy. The Roush Fenway Racing star posted a pair of eighth-place finishes here last season. That gives Edwards four Top 10's in his last seven trips to Southern Virginia. With championship hopes hanging in the balance, we expect a clutch performance this Sunday.

Tony Stewart -
With Stewart entering this event thick in the hunt for the championship, we expect to see some added urgency for this race. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet won at a similar flat short track in Loudon, New Hampshire earlier in the Chase. Granted Stewart didn't dominate that event, he was smart enough and good enough to steal the victory. He is a two-time winner at Martinsville Speedway, and Stewart boasts a respectable 52 percent Top 10 rate at the short track. Granted his recent outings at Martinsville haven't been the best, we expect Smoke to rise to the occasion in the Tums Fast Relief 500.

Mark Martin -
The only active drivers with more Top 10's at Martinsville are Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte. Martin checks in with a respectable 25 career Top-10 finishes at the half-mile flat track. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has been rediscovering his groove during the Chase. Martin's 46 laps led at the Loudon oval a few weeks ago are proof of this point. Only fuel strategy ruined his hopes for a Top 10 that day. With four Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to Martinsville Speedway, we believe it's safe to assume Martin will be happy to see the small oval this weekend.

Jeff Gordon -
The seven-time Martinsville winner is effectively eliminated from the championship picture this weekend. While that's a bit of demoralizing news, we have to take into account just how good the No. 24 team is at this small oval no matter what the odds. Gordon has led close to 3,000 laps at Martinsville Speedway and he's posted a staggering 30 Top 10's for his career. That averages out to an amazing 81 percent Top 10 rate and 7.0 average finish over 37 career starts. Once we digest those impressive numbers, we firmly believe the Hendrick Motorsports legend could navigate this bullring while blindfolded. That should be good enough to warrant a fantasy racing start this 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 nine career Top 5's and 12 Top 10's at the Virginia bull ring. His recent numbers have been good enough to warrant fantasy consideration. Earnhardt qualified 26th, led 17 laps and finished second there in spring's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. The NASCAR icon was in the running for the win right up until the end of that event. The risk is relatively small and the fantasy racing upside is too good to ignore.

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 outside of the championship chase and Bowyer may be leaving RCR at the end of the season, but he will be looking to turn in a big performance on Sunday. The victory this past week at Talladega is great evidence of this driver's resolve right now. Bowyer's four Top-10 finishes in his last six trips to Martinsville entering this event show his expertise. All indicators point towards a similar performance to his ninth-place finish at this oval this past April.

Brian Vickers -
Red Bull Racing may shut down at the end of this season, but the veteran duo of Vickers and Kasey Kahne are sending them out with a bang. The pair is fresh off Top 10's at Talladega and coming to Martinsville with a lot of momentum. Vickers posted a Top-5 finish earlier in the Chase at the similar flat oval of Loudon, so his skills on short flat ovals are primed. The driver of the No. 83 Toyota only has two career Top 10's at Martinsville Speedway, but one of them come last spring. The momentum and performance are on his side entering this event.

Kasey Kahne -
Keeping with the Red Bull theme, we'll highlight Kahne for this week's TUMS Fast Relief 500 as well. Without a doubt the driver of the No. 4 Toyota is one of the hottest drivers in the series right now. Kahne carries a five-race Top 6 streak into this event, and short of Carl Edwards he's easily accumulated the most driver points during this span. One has to look past Kahne's two career Top 10's at Martinsville this weekend, and focus more on his recent body of work. The small oval in Loudon is not a good historic venue for Kahne either. Yet he qualified on the outside of row 1, led 43 laps and finished a respectable 15th a few weeks ago.

David Ragan -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is auditioning for a new gig in 2012. Ragan may not know where he's headed just yet, but he's determined to build his resume and continue to impress this season. The driver of the No. 6 Ford cracked the Top 10 for the first time at Martinsville Speedway in this spring's Goody's Fast Relief 500. Ragan posted a respectable eighth-place finish in the series' last visit to Martinsville. He cracked the Top 10 at Loudon, New Hampshire earlier in the Chase, so expectations are high for this Sunday afternoon.

Regan Smith -
Smith is coming off a hard crash and disappointing DNF at Talladega, so the No. 78 team will be determined to rebound in Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500. The journeyman driver has only six career starts at the Virginia short track, with only one Top-15 finish to his credit. We have to put this in its proper perspective this weekend. Smith has excelled on the ovals one-mile in length and less since the Chase began. His 10th-place finish at Loudon and 17th-place finish at Dover are solid and dependable. We believe that is more reasonable indicator of what to expect this weekend.

J.J. Yeley -
In the deep sleeper category, or those in weekly lineup leagues fishing for some deep help off the bench, we offer Yeley at Martinsville. He is the equivalent of a fantasy racing Hail Mary pass this week, but the Front Row Motorsports driver could provide some surprising results. Yeley has seven career starts at Martinsville Speedway with two Top-25 finishes. The seven-year Sprint Cup Series veteran forged a 27th-place finish a few weeks ago at New Hampshire, so the ability to perform is clearly present. If he drives the No. 38 Ford this weekend buy low, if he's in the No. 55 Ford just pass.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Bobby Labonte -
While Labonte does boast 13 career Top 10's at the Southern Virginia short track, we have to look closely at the recent outings to get a proper perspective for the veteran driver. He only has two Top 20's in his last nine trips to Martinsville Speedway. Three of those trips have resulted in finishes outside the Top 30. After qualifying seventh in this April's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 the No. 47 Toyota crossed the stripe a subpar 27th. All indicators point to a poor performance for the former champion in this event.

David Reutimann -
Reutimann has been a struggling driver in 2011. Entering this event he's ranked a lowly 28th in the overall driver standings. The driver of the No. 00 Toyota is normally a decent performer on the circuit's short tracks, but the flat ovals are another story all together. In nine career starts at Martinsville Speedway Reutimann has only cracked the Top 15 once. That totals out to a career average finish of 24.3 at this small oval. Considering his struggles this season and clear lack of performance at this track, we have to give the downgrade this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
In most instances Newman would appear in the sleepers list if not the solid plays list of any Martinsville preview. But this weekend is the rare exception. We're not accusing the veteran driver of throwing in the towel this season, but after Newman's bad start to the Chase it would appear to be the case. We're all too aware of Rocket Man's three career poles and nine Top 10's at this facility, but his decent through the standings during the Chase is hard to ignore. Consider his 20th- and 30th-place finishes in his last two trips to Martinsville, and you can see the reason for our pessimism.

Joey Logano -
Speaking of struggles, Logano and the No. 20 Toyota team come to mind right away. Despite the young driver turning lemons into lemonade this past weekend at Talladega with his salvage operation 24th-place finish, we have to recommend passing him up this week. Three of his six starts in the Chase have resulted in finishes outside the Top 20. Logano has two career Top 10's in five starts at Martinsville Speedway, so it's a good track for him. However, the recent inconsistency makes the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster too risky to deploy in the TUMS Fast Relief 500.
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