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Fast Relief 500 Preview: Hamlinís Home Turf

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 Sprint Cup Series throws a changeup to the competitors this weekend. The 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 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 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 bull ring is one of the pivotal races that crowns NASCAR's champion. Some of the top contender's 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. Among those, Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin comes to mind right away. He claims Martinsville as his "hometown" track and who can blame him? Hamlin owns four career victories at the half-mile paperclip and only Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon boast more wins and laps led at this facility. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota will definitely be defending his home turf this weekend in an effort to win his first 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 Jimmie Johnson is going for his sixth 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, 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 15 races at Martinsville.

Jimmie Johnson4.35427421,6176,854121.4
Jeff Gordon4.94868261,5696,775120.8
Denny Hamlin6.44574951,1275,844113.4
Tony Stewart12.53583758445,680101.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.10.94744354175,710100.1
Kyle Busch17.74413293974,92894.4
Kevin Harvick14.43631862164,77393.9
Ryan Newman12.13981261364,46790.1
Jeff Burton16.33842823664,49488.9
Clint Bowyer14.7370127934,39787.9
Mark Martin15.0225120272,78087.0
Jamie McMurray17.7248108743,88483.2
Brad Keselowski13.41283121,27682.3
Juan Pablo Montoya15.3324149462,58582.3
Carl Edwards15.5431110314,11680.5
Matt Kenseth14.825952333,50079.1
Kurt Busch20.8279129713,48977.2
Joey Logano15.12043201,33777.0
Brian Vickers20.42925002,80875.5
Kasey Kahne22.316916212,20473.5

A lot has happened since the last race at Martinsville Speedway in April of this year. Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski have swapped the points lead on several occasions. Kyle Busch shockingly missed making the Chase field after a late-summer slump and Jeff Gordon's miraculous effort at Richmond. Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Johnson are trying desperately to keep pace with Keselowski 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. Jeff Gordon and Johnson dominated most of the event, but it was Ryan Newman on a green-white-checkered restart that gave the leading duo the boot and swept into victory lane on the last lap. It capped 19 lead changes on the day and lots of fireworks and excitement to end the 515 laps in the Virginia mixing bowl. 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. None the least of which will be short track specialists Keselowski and Hamlin squaring off in almost what can be deemed a one-on-one duel to see who will set the pace in these handful of remaining Chase races. 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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has to have a big performance at the Virginia short track this weekend if he hopes to challenge for the championship at Homestead. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won three of the last six races at Martinsville Speedway, and he's led over 1,100 career circuits at the half-mile oval. Hamlin led 31 laps and finished sixth in this season's spring race at Martinsville. He was one of the three strongest drivers on the track that day. With the stakes reaching the stratosphere this weekend, there's no other driver in the field we would pin our hopes on than Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson -
Our five-time Sprint Cup Series champion is a six-time winner at Martinsville, and has led well over 1,700 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 top contender this weekend. He led 111 laps and battled for the win with teammate Jeff Gordon in this April's Goody's Fast Relief 500, so the black book on this track should come in handy this Sunday afternoon. Johnson has a knack of stepping up his performance when everything is on the line, and that's the precise scenario in the TUMS Fast Relief 500.

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 situation. Gordon has led over 3,400 laps at Martinsville Speedway and he's posted a staggering 31 Top 10s for his career. That works out to an amazing 80 percent Top 10 rate and 7.1 average finish over 39 career starts. Once we digest those impressive numbers, we firmly believe the Hendrick Motorsports legend could navigate this bull ring in his sleep. Gordon dominated the April event at Martinsville by leading well over 300 laps, so we have to keep that in mind when setting our lineups for this very important race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is just receiving medical clearance to race after his Talladega concussion, but you have to take a long hard look at Earnhardt despite the medical concerns. He owns 10 career Top 5s and 14 Top 10s at the Virginia bull ring. He has come the closest of the field at upsetting the Martinsville big three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon in recent races. Earnhardt qualified 14th, led three laps and finished third 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. However, with that said monitor his medical status closely approaching the weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have 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 two Top 10s in five career starts at Martinsville Speedway, and his visit here in April yielded a career best ninth-place finish. The championship standings leader has been well known for his short track prowess during his three seasons of competition. That should translate well to the TUMS Fast Relief 500. With the pressure of the championship looming we expect the Penske Racing star to step up his game this weekend. Keselowski is nursing a seven-point lead in the standings over Jimmie Johnson, and we expect him to race with that urgency at Martinsville.

Kevin Harvick -
It's been a sub-par season for the No. 29 team, and Harvick has his intentions set on improving team performance as we head into the final races of the season. While Harvick has been anything but consistent of late, he has been pretty steady on his best tracks. Martinsville Speedway is one of those facilities for the veteran driver. Harvick has one career victory and 10 Top-10 finishes at the paperclip in Virginia. Three of those Top 10s have come in the last four visits to the speedway. The RCR veteran has been on a roll at Martinsville the last few visits, so momentum is on his side.

Ryan Newman -
In most instances Newman would appear in the sleepers list of any Martinsville preview, but this weekend is a bit of an exception. We're giving the SHR driver an upgrade this weekend. Rocket Man won the spring race 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 10s at Martinsville Speedway. Anytime you can average better than 50 percent finishing in the Top 10 at a short track like Martinsville, you've accomplished something big.

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 outside contenders for the championship, so Bowyer will be looking to turn in a big performance on Sunday afternoon. His one win and five Top 10s in the six Chase races to this point are great evidence of this driver's resolve right now. Bowyer's three Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to Martinsville entering this event show his expertise at this small oval. All indicators point towards a similar performance to his 10th-place finish at this oval this past April.

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

Carl Edwards -
If Edwards wants to draw one step closer to getting back into championship contender form, then he needs a good run at Martinsville this week. The No. 99 team's Top 10 binge since the beginning of the Chase has Edwards looking more like his old self. 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 owns one pole position and three Top 10s in his last five trips to the Southern Virginia short track. With Top-10 finishes in two of his last four races entering this weekend, Edwards has the momentum to finish well in the TUMS Fast Relief 500.

Tony Stewart -
With Stewart outside the championship picture, hopefully he can just relax and race for the win this weekend at Martinsville. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has three Top 10s thus far in the Chase, including a solid seventh-place finish at the small flat oval in New Hampshire. Granted Stewart didn't dominate that event, he was smart enough and good enough to post an impressive finish. He is a three-time winner at Martinsville Speedway, and Stewart boasts a respectable 56 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 this 500-lap brawl.

Brian Vickers -
The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran will be making his last start of the season for the No.55 team this weekend at the small Virginia oval. Vickers has three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his seven starts this season for MWR. Most of these good outings have occurred on the series' short tracks. In September at Loudon, Vickers qualified fourth, led five laps and finished an impressive ninth in the Sylvania 300. Performances like this have become more the rule than the exception this season for Vickers. He should challenge the Top 10 again this Sunday afternoon at Martinsville.

Kasey Kahne -
This selection is somewhat at odds with the stats, but follow our line of logic here. Kahne has only two Top 10s in 17 career starts at Martinsville Speedway. This small oval has held a lot more heartache than success for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Where the trend should change is starting this weekend. Kahne will be making just his second career start at the Virginia short track in a Hendrick Chevrolet. This is the same stable that has led Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to so much success at this facility. Kahne won the pole position and looked like a contender to win at Martinsville in April before an engine failure ruined his day. Kahne should make amends for that mechanical mishap this time around.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is looking to finish the season on a strong run since the championship is now likely out of reach. Truex has four Top 10s in the six Chase races to-date, so performance has been on the high side of late for the No. 56 Toyota team. Martinsville Speedway has been a tricky venue for Truex, but signs have been pointing way up of late. His last two visits to the Southern Virginia oval have yielded eighth- and fifth-place finishes. Truex is fresh off the runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway, so optimism is pretty high coming to Martinsville this weekend.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola is coming off a hard crash and disappointing DNF at Kansas after leading so many laps, so the No. 43 team will be determined to rebound in Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500. The young driver has only seven career starts at the Virginia short track, with only one Top-10 finish to his credit. We have to put this in its proper perspective this weekend. The lone Top 10, and eighth-place finish, came in this April's Goody's Fast Relief 500. While the bar is set pretty high, we believe that is still very possible of what to expect this weekend.

Bobby Labonte -
In the deep sleeper category, or for those in weekly lineup leagues fishing for some deep help off the bench, we offer Labonte at Martinsville. He is the equivalent of a fantasy racing Hail Mary pass this week, but the JTG Daugherty Racing driver could provide some surprising results. Labonte has an amazing 39 career starts at Martinsville Speedway with 23 Top-20 finishes. The nineteen-year Sprint Cup Series veteran forged a 17th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, so the ability to perform is clearly present. Labonte's three Top 20s in the six Chase races are a good barometer of what to look for this Sunday at the paperclip.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is struggling to bring this season to a close. Ambrose has only one Top-15 finish in the six Chase races and that averages out to a lackluster 23.5 average finish over the last six. The driver of the No. 9 Ford isn't the best short track driver in the series, so a good Martinsville finish is a tall order. Ambrose has seven career starts at the Virginia bull ring with no Top-10 finishes to his credit. Two of his last three trips to Martinsville Speedway have netted finishes outside the Top 25.

Greg Biffle -
Simply put the career record and current bad luck of this team disqualify Biffle from much of any fantasy racing expectations this weekend. If his two Martinsville Top 10s in 19 career starts wasn't bad enough, then his crash and poor finish this past weekend at one of his better tracks in Kansas should settle the issue. The Roush Fenway Racing star is limping to the finish line in 2012 and mediocrity is not an option at this point in the season. It's better to look over Biffle until the series finale at Homestead.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The recently reinstated driver has been a great feel-good story for October, but we have to come back to Earth regarding his chances at Martinsville this weekend. The new driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet seems to have inherited the bad luck that Kurt Busch possessed in his time in this car most of the season. Allmendinger crashed and finished 35th this past weekend at Kansas. Martinsville doesn't promise much more for the veteran driver. Allmendinger has only two Top 10s in 10 career starts at the Virginia short track.

Kyle Busch -
Busch will be looking to put his Kansas crash behind him with a good run at Martinsville this Sunday afternoon. This may be a tough task as the Joe Gibbs Racing star has not been a consistent performer at Martinsville Speedway over the years. Busch has a less than 50 percent Top 10 rate at the half-mile oval, and his recent performances have been very forgettable. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota crashed and finished 36th here in the spring. That is one of three finishes outside the Top 20 in his last five trips to Martinsville Speedway.