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Fast Pain Relief 500 Preview: Short Track Survival

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.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to the east coast this week as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Va., for the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. Martinsville marks the return to short tracks after the just-completed race at the two-mile oval in Fontana, California. Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is absolutely flat on the long straight-aways. Brake preservation is the name of the game in Martinsville, because you essentially have two drag strips with hairpin corners on either end. The oval looks very much like a paper clip when viewed from above. Taking care of your brakes for the full 500 laps becomes as important as passing on this tricky short track. Like any bull ring in the Sprint Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but qualifying and track position is huge. If you start in the back of the field here, you can find yourself down a lap in a matter of minutes from the start of the race, so teams must place high priority on qualifying well. Track position will become so important over the course of the race that you will see teams chose either not to pit certain cautions, or to take on two tires in order to grab track position on pit road.

This weekend's race will be very important from a qualifying standpoint. Martinsville and the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 is where the 2012 championship points kick-in for provisional starts. Teams have fallen back on last season's points thus far for provisional starts. There are a handful of teams that were in the Top 35 last season, and are not now. Also, there are some teams that have worked their way into the Top 35 that weren't there last season. The following is a rundown of some of the teams of importance ...

Casey MearsNo. 13 Germain Racing Ford29th
Travis KvapilNo. 93 BK Racing Toyota30th
Labonte/SchraderNo. 32 FAS Lane Racing Ford31st
David GillilandNo. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford32nd
David RaganNo. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford33rd
Reutimann/PatrickNo. 10 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevy34th
Brendan GaughanNo. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevy35th
Landon CassillNo. 83 BK Racing Toyota36th
David StremmeNo. 30 Inception Motorsports Toyota37th
Trevor BayneNo. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford38th
Josh WiseNo. 26 Front Row Motorsports Ford39th
J.J. YeleyNo. 49 Robinson-Blakeney Racing Toyota40th
Michael McDowellNo. 98 Phil Parsons Racing Ford41st

Two teams that we've been used to seeing in the Top 35 in recent seasons have fallen completely out of this list. The No. 7 of Robby Gordon and the No. 87 of Joe Nemechek are way outside the cutoff and are now in what we would call fantasy racing no-go land. Gordon's No. 7 team is even reining back their Sprint Cup Series schedule significantly after failing to qualify for the last three races. Nemechek's team will continue to be a start-and-park that may fail to qualify on a weekly basis. Teams that are in much better shape and present at least a weekly consideration in deep leagues and weekly lineup formats would be the two Front Row Motorsports cars of David Ragan and David Gilliland. They've battled to get Top 35 status and keep it over the last couple seasons. Now those labors appear to be paying off slowly. Also, you can add to that list the No. 13 team of Germain Racing and Casey Mears. The team appears to be in the Top 35 to stay and coming off a respectable 23rd-place finish at Fontana. The new BK Racing teams of Travis Kvapil and Landon Cassill are in two different dispositions. While Kvapil's No. 93 team is well within the Top 35 and getting provisional starts beginning at Martinsville Speedway, the No. 83 team of Cassill is on the wrong side of the line in 36th-place and will be fighting to qualify for races each week until the team can gain Top 35 status. In summary, keep a close eye on qualifying this week. These teams outside the Top 35 present a huge risk to fantasy racing players who look to employ their services in the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500.

Since Martinsville Speedway is like no other track on the Sprint Cup circuit, we'll have to pay close attention to the loop stats this week. Recent statistics at Martinsville will be one of the biggest factors in our weekly projections. Hot streaks go out the window to a certain extent when we visit this facility, so it's these recent numbers that require close scrutiny. The loop stats in the table below span the last seven years or 14 races at Martinsville Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson3.75036841,5066,419122.2
Jeff Gordon4.34657401,2406,261119.9
Denny Hamlin6.54304681,0965,329113.6
Tony Stewart12.93263698445,165102.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.54314084145,19699.0
Kyle Busch16.44382793974,83295.8
Kevin Harvick14.13491821954,58494.4
Jeff Burton15.93642693664,24289.5
Ryan Newman12.93691191244,07589.2
Mark Martin15.0225120272,78087.0
Clint Bowyer15.1347110913,88285.8
Jamie McMurray17.6243108743,87184.5
Juan Pablo Montoya14.7322133462,58384.3
Carl Edwards15.8421105313,89480.9
Kurt Busch19.9279112713,48979.6
Joey Logano13.81952101,29678.8
Matt Kenseth15.623344323,08277.7
Brad Keselowski14.5918076176.5
Brian Vickers20.62854102,73375.8
Kasey Kahne21.215414311,96472.5

Martinsville had been a tale of two drivers for the last several seasons, but in 2011 we saw a changing of the guard take place. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin ruled the Virginia short track with total domination. The duo had won the nine prior events at the facility leading up to last season. That all changed when Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag for this event one year ago. Then Tony Stewart would follow in the fall installment at Martinsville during his five-win Chase for the Cup performance that led to his Sprint Cup Series championship. The chances for the “Martinsville Duo” to reassert themselves in this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 would seem very slim. Johnson hasn't shown race winning form yet this season and Hamlin has been battling some consistency issues after his hot start to the season. But we need to be aware these two talented drivers are always a threat when we come to Southern Virginia. The chances for Harvick and Stewart repeating their 2011 success at the small oval would seem to be more likely. Harvick is still looking for his first win of 2012, and Stewart is just a few weeks removed from his big win at Las Vegas. One thing is almost certain… We're more likely to see a Chevrolet or Toyota in victory lane this Sunday afternoon than a Ford, by a wide margin. A Ford driver hasn't won at this small oval since Kurt Busch pulled the feat for owner Jack Roush in 2002. We'll take a look at the stats and streaks and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Martinsville Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
With six career wins at the Martinsville oval, Johnson is positioned to be the driver to contend with Denny Hamlin in this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. Despite going winless each of the last two seasons at the Virginia short track, he's still a very dangerous driver at this facility. The five-time champion dominated Martinsville Speedway for a good portion of the last decade. From 2004 to 2009 Johnson won six of the 10 events during that span. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy has led well over 1,600 laps for his career at Martinsville Speedway, so he makes an excellent choice for your fantasy lineups on Sunday afternoon.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the driver to beat until further notice at Martinsville Speedway. He has won three of the last five races at the small oval and has dueled with the leaders in each of those events. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led close to 1,100 laps in his short seven-season career at Martinsville's bull ring, so the field is used to seeing the rear end of the No. 11 Toyota at this facility. Hamlin enters this 500-lap event with one win already on the young season and seeking some momentum. Hamlin is nothing short of the top contender for the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 and yet another grandfather clock trophy for his living room.

Tony Stewart -
The three-time Martinsville winner has better tracks in his resume than this small oval. Considering he wins about 1-in-9 starts at Martinsville, you probably wouldn't expect to see the No. 14 Chevrolet team in the contenders list this week. However, the most important aspect of those three wins is that Smoke is our last victor at the Martinsville oval. Stewart passed Jimmie Johnson with just three laps to go in last October's Tums Fast Relief 500 to capture the win. The reigning Sprint Cup champion is on a roll and coming off his second win of the season at Fontana. Stewart should carry that momentum into this weekend's short track shootout at Martinsville Speedway.

Kevin Harvick -
If either Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin stumbles this Sunday, it could be the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team that seizes on the opportunity and steals this race. We always think highly of Harvick when it comes to short track racing and his Martinsville resume is pretty strong outside of the top contenders here. Harvick won this event one year ago for his first career victory at Martinsville Speedway. He's also finished in the Top 4 of the last three races at the paper clip. Harvick has led over 200 laps in his last four trips to the Southern Virginia short track, so the No. 29 team has this place dialed-in.

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

Jeff Gordon -
We're banking that Gordon can shake his current slump this week with a visit to this small Virginia oval. Martinsville Speedway ranks number one on the circuit for the Hendrick Motorsports star with seven career wins and a staggering 25 Top-5 finishes. If there's such a thing as a security blanket in Gordon's track portfolio, this is it. Short of one blemish (20th-place finish in the fall of 2010) this track has held an improbable run of 13 Top-5 finishes for the No. 24 team dating back to the 2005 season. You just don't see that kind of dominance in the modern era of NASCAR parity. However, Gordon wears it like a champion each time we visit the circuit's shortest track.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is off to a great start to the 2012 season. Five events into this campaign and Truex has three Top 10's and is ranked a surprising fifth in the driver standings. Our last short track event saw the No. 56 Toyota team finish a season-best third at Bristol a couple weeks ago. Truex doesn't have great career numbers at Martinsville Speedway, but he's been figuring the bull ring out of late. Two of his last four trips to Southern Virginia have netted Top-10 finishes. Truex should be good for another one in Sunday's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has had a lot of up-and-down performances at the Virginia short track over the years, but of late showed signs of improvement. His last two trips to Martinsville have yielded close to 280 laps led and a lot of TV time for the No. 18 Toyota. Busch has grabbed a pair of Top-5 finishes in two of his last three trips to this facility, so whatever struggles he had here earlier in his career are quickly disappearing. We expect to see the JGR star racing with the leaders and posting a Top-10 finish after 500-miles of action at the Martinsville oval.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Despite his inconsistency while racing for owner Rick Hendrick the last few seasons, Earnhardt has managed to maintain a solid resume at Martinsville Speedway. He has started this season on a roll, so we have high expectations for the No. 88 Chevrolet team this weekend. Earnhardt is riding a three-race Top 10 streak at this Virginia bull ring, and that even includes a runner-up finish in this race one year ago where the Hendrick star battled for the victory in the closing laps. Considering how well Earnhardt has started the 2012 season, we know he has to be smiling heading to Martinsville Speedway this Sunday.

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

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is off to a mediocre start this season, but he still finds himself a respectable 13th in the driver standings after five races. This week's event at the Martinsville oval could be the boost Edwards has been looking for. His recent numbers at the historic short track includes Top 10's in three of his last four visits, including a pole position last fall. While we're not accustomed to seeing the No. 99 Ford lead laps, it has become second nature to see the team collecting workman-like Top-10 finishes here.

Ryan Newman -
The Stewart-Haas No. 39 team is looking to continue their early-season hot streak and the best way to do that is to set Newman loose at Martinsville. The veteran driver owns three career poles and a 50 percent Top 10 rate at Martinsville Speedway. Newman has led close to 100 laps in his last five trips to the paperclip-shaped oval, and his last start at the speedway netted a respectable 10th-place finish last October. Rocket Man and his Stewart Haas Racing team have this track dialed-in right now.

Brad Keselowski -
Our recent Bristol winner, Keselowski, is looking to extend his short track success to Martinsville as well. The Penske Racing driver hasn't had the kind of success at the small Virginia oval that he's had at the nearby Tennessee short track. Keselowski's best indicator of success this weekend is his last trip to Martinsville. He qualified a career-best third and finished 17th in last October's Tums Fast Relief 500. We would be greatly disappointed if Keselowski didn't build on that effort in Sunday's 500-lap event at Martinsville Speedway. A Top-15 finish should be certain with the upside potential of much more.

Clint Bowyer -
The new Michael Waltrip Racing driver is finding his new identity with his new team. After a Top 10 at Las Vegas and Top 5 at Bristol, he finished a respectable 13th in this past weekend's rain-shortened Fontana race. Bowyer will also make a good fantasy racing option at the small oval in Southern Virginia. He has twp Top 10's in his last four starts at Martinsville coming into this weekend's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. This is the same driver we saw lead 91 laps and finish ninth in this race one year ago. Bowyer should give new owner Michael Waltrip a nice surprise on Sunday afternoon.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray has been making great gains to start the new season and has been shaking off the stigma of a horrible 2011 season. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has always liked racing the flat oval in Virginia. McMurray owns 10 Top-10 finishes in 18 career starts at Martinsville Speedway. That includes a pole position, 31 laps led and a brilliant seventh-place finish in this event one year ago. McMurray could potentially be the biggest surprise return in the entire sleepers list this week.

Brian Vickers -
The deep sleeper of the bunch this weekend is Vickers. Needless to say, it's his first start of the 2012 season at the small oval in Bristol a couple weeks ago that much of this is predicated on. The last time we saw the journeyman driver in action at Martinsville he was hitting everything but the pace car and putting Matt Kenseth's Chase hopes on ice. However, Vickers' brilliant Top 5 performance at Bristol two weeks ago for the strong No. 55 Toyota team gives us good reason to be optimistic. He has been given a new lease on his Sprint Cup Series career with this team, and they're quite good right out of the box. Vickers is racing for his future in NASCAR, and that's reason enough to spot him a start in deeper and weekly lineup leagues.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kurt Busch -
Despite racking up his first Top-10 finish of the season this past weekend at Fontana, we're reserved about Busch's chances this weekend at Martinsville. The Phoenix Racing star has one career win at the short track, but his recent performances there have been quite puzzling. Busch has failed to crack the Top 10 at Martinsville in his last 12 starts. His four career Top 10's in 23 starts at the Virginia oval factor out to a lowly 17 percent Top 10 rate. Considering the limitations of the No. 51 team, and Busch's lack of momentum right now, it's best to pass him up this week.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has fallen on hard times of late. After Top-15 finishes in two of the season's first three races, the driver of the No. 9 Ford has a pair of finishes outside the Top 20 in the last two events. Ambrose will attempt to gather it up and limit the damage this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, but he faces an uphill battle. Ambrose has six career starts at the small oval and no Top-10 finishes to his credit. In fact, his last three trips to the facility have netted finishes of 34th-, 29th- and 29th-place. These performances all amount to a lowly 24.0 average finish at Martinsville. Ambrose is definitely a driver to pass on in the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500.

Kasey Kahne -
The 2012 season has not started the way Kahne and new boss Rick Hendrick would have liked. Five events into the season and the star driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet finds himself in 27th-place in the driver standings and with no Top-10 finishes yet for the year. Kahne is much better than this and will certainly turn things around at some point, but this won't be the week. Martinsville Speedway ranks as one of Kahne's worst tracks on the circuit, and easily his worst short track. In 16 career starts at the paper clip he only has two Top-10 finishes. In just his last four trips to Southern Virginia he's only cracked the Top 15 once. Kahne will wake up at some point, but don't bank on it this weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger -
When thinking of drivers in new places this season, and not getting off to good starts, we have to give some attention to Allmendinger as well. The new Penske Racing driver hasn't exactly landed on both feet with his new No. 22 Dodge team. In fact, Allmendinger just posted his first Top-15 finish of the season this past weekend at Auto Club Speedway. He sits a lowly 26th in the championship standings as a result of his slow start to 2012. Allmendinger also has less-than-affectionate thoughts about the small oval in Martinsville, Virginia. He's forged only one Top 10 in nine career starts at the speedway and his 22.9 average finish at the facility are less than impressive. We look for the Penske Racing driver's struggles to continue.