March 28, 2012
After the 500 laps–well, if the rain stays away–of the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 are completed this Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, the Sprint Cup Series will have its first weekend off of the season before heading to Texas Motor Speedway for the first Saturday night race of the year. As usual, I expect the normal faces up front that we see mostly every time we come to “The Paperclip,” so my Preview this week will, chances are, look very similar to everyone else’s. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have been light years better than the other organizations over the past two seasons at this track, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.
During The Last Race At Martinsville…Tony Stewart grabbed his third win in the Chase back in October at The Paperclip despite leading just 14 laps. The Hendrick duo of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon finished 2nd and 3rd, leading 61 and 113 laps, respectively. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5. Kyle Busch led a race-high 126 laps but hit the wall late and finished a disappointing 27th.
Practice Schedule…Everyone who plays Yahoo! Auto Racing should like the practice schedule this weekend because we get to see the cars on track before locking down our drivers. On Friday, there will be two practice sessions (at 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm) followed by qualifying on Saturday morning at 11:30 am. Once the starting lineup is set, the cars won’t hit the track again until Sunday’s 500-lap event. All times are in EST.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Goody’s Fast Relief 500:
1. Kyle Busch – Rowdy has never won at Martinsville in fourteen career starts, but that’s bound to change soon, and right now I think it’s going to be this Sunday. The #18 was the best car in Fontana a week ago and Dave Rogers and crew should prepare another hot rod for Kyle again this weekend. Busch has had a top 5 car in each of the last three races at The Paperclip (average driver rating of 110.6) and would have three straight top 5 finishes if it weren’t for getting put into the wall by Matt Kenseth (video here). He was in the top 5 for much of that day (Yahoo! Race Chart here). Rowdy’s six top 5s is tied for third-best in the series among drivers with twenty or fewer starts here.
2. Jimmie Johnson – No surprise here. This is Five Time’s third-best track on the circuit and he owns the best average finish here of anyone in the series with 5.5. In twenty career starts, Johnson has amassed six wins and has just one finish outside of the top 20, which was a 35th-place effort in his very first start here (caused by a vibration). Jimmie’s 11th-place effort in this race last season broke a streak of seventeen-straight single-digit finishes at Martinsville, but he started a new one in the fall with a runner-up, as I said before. He’s had triple-digit driver ratings in every single race here since 2006. Not much more of a safer pick than the #48 Chevrolet this weekend.
3. Denny Hamlin – As long as there isn’t any rain so Darian Grubb can make another idiotic pit road call, I’ll consider Hamlin a lock for a top 5 this weekend. His resume at Martinsville is quite impressive: thirteen starts, four wins, nine top 5s, and an average finish of 6.5. Denny has just one finish worse than 12th here, and that was a 37th back in 2006 when he started 41st and got caught up in an accident. His minimum driver rating in the last six events at The Paperclip has been 118.7 and he averaged a rating of 127.6 during those three years. Also in that span, Hamlin has led 861 laps. This is best track on the circuit statistically and it’s coming at a good time: the #11 crew will be able to wipe their memory or Fontana clean with a solid run (and maybe even a win) this weekend in Martinsville.
4. Jeff Gordon – And the bad luck bug strikes Jeff Gordon again… I wasn’t going to rank him this high when I was originally putting this post together (I had him around 8th or 9th), but when you look at his record at Martinsville, it’s hard to justify not having Gordon in the top 5; he’s just that good at this half-mile race track. Jeff has made thirty-eight starts at this venue and 81.5% of the time he has ended up in the top 10. In the last fourteen races, Gordon has ended up in the top 5 in thirteen of them. It’s his best track on the circuit and even with his bad luck to start the 2012 season, I wouldn’t be afraid to take the four-time champion this weekend.
5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – If Junebug is going to win a race soon, this will probably be the best chance he has in the next month or so. Statistically, he’s the fourth-best driver at Martinsville (with an average finish of 13.1) although he has yet to visit victory lane at this half-mile track. In twenty-four career starts, however, Junior has amassed thirteen top 10s (nine being top 5s) and he finished 2nd in this event last season. He’s on a streak of three straight top 10s here and also has had a driver rating of at least 100.1 in all three. Earnhardt hasn’t finished outside of the top 15 all season thus far and I wouldn’t bank on that changing this week.
6. Kevin Harvick – “Happy” is really getting the hang of The Paperclip here lately. Going into the 2010 season, he had never posted a top 5 finish in seventeen starts at the track, but in the spring race he went and put his #29 Chevy on the pole and led 57 laps. He had a brake problem that day and finished 35th. In the fall race that year, though, Harvick posted his first top 5 at Martinsville (a 3rd-place effort) after leading 97 laps, and came back in 2011 and grabbed his first career win here in the spring and ended up in 4th in the fall. History isn’t on his side here, but Kevin should have one of the best cars this weekend in Martinsville, and should improve on his career average finish of 15.9.
7. Ryan Newman – I’m going to watch this team closely in practice on Friday because they just don’t seem on top of their game as of late to me. Be sure to check out my final Predictions for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at www.ifantasyrace.com to see whether or not “The Rocketman” is worthy of this spot after practice and qualifying. With that being said, Newman is generally a pretty solid pick on the short tracks. In the last six Martinsville races, he has come away with four top 10s and led a total of 99 laps (over half of his total 182 in twenty career starts here). He has three top 5 starts here in the six races since joining Stewart-Haas Racing so you may be able to snag some qualifying bonus points from him this weekend. His career average start here is 8.9 compared to his career average finish of 14.4.
8. Clint Bowyer – I kind of jumped the guns on him last weekend in Fontana, but the strong run by this team in Bristol a couple weeks ago along with Bowyer’s history at Martinsville makes me think we’re going to see another good run out of this #15 Toyota on Sunday. In twelve starts here, Clint has averaged a finish of right around 15th and recorded seven finishes of 11th or better. If you like patterns, in the last five spring races here, Bowyer has finished 11th, 10th, 5th, 7th, and 9th, compared to his fall finishes of 9th, 9th, 19th 38th, and 19th. His average driver rating of 90.0 over the past two years here is ninth-best in the series.
9. Carl Edwards – The #99 Ford was finally starting to come back to form last weekend when the rain started. Will that continue this weekend? We’ll find out. If you’re going to pick a Roush Ford this weekend, I’d go with Cousin Carl (although I wouldn’t recommend any of them because there are many better picks out there). Edwards has made fifteen starts at The Paperclip and has just one top 5 finish to his name (a 3rd in 2008). He does, however, have five top 10s and just four finishes outside of the top 20. In the last four events here, Carl has one pole and three finishes of 8th or 9th.
10. Tony Stewart – Yeah, Smoke won again last weekend (since when does this happen so early in the season?) and is the most recent winner at this track, so this ranking is probably pretty low in many people’s minds. However, his runs in this race last season as well as both events in 2010 are really sticking out at me. He finished 34th here last year after starting 28th and finished 26th and 24th in 2010 despite starting 5th and 6th, respectively. His driver ratings in those races aren’t much to ride home about, either (best of 88.3). He could sneak up on me and grab a top 5 but I think a top 10 or top 15 is much more likely for Smoke this weekend.
11. Martin Truex, Jr. – Say hello to my dark horse pick of the week. With his (albeit lucky) 8th-place finish last weekend in Fontana, Truex now has an average finish of 9.6 in the last ten (ten!) Sprint Cup races. I think this is the most consistent stretch of finishes during his career in NASCAR’s top series, but don’t quote me on that because I haven’t went back and checked it. Still, this guy has momentum and confidence, and so does this entire Michael Waltrip Racing stable. Will we see a top 5 sweep again like a couple weeks ago in Bristol? Martin’s best finish at Martinsville came in this event in 2010, where he finished 5th, which was his first start here for MWR. He stumbled in the next two events at this track, but last fall, Truex placed the #56 Toyota in 8th-place, and his Yahoo! chart shows that it wasn’t exactly luck.
12. Brad Keselowski – BK is one-for-one on the short tracks in the 2012 season, but I don’t see him getting his first career victory at Martinsville this weekend. Still, I’m expecting another solid run out of the Blue Deuce on Sunday. I’ve been saying it for a couple of weeks: Keselowski knows how to get to the front, he just sometimes has difficulty finishing. In four starts at The Paperclip, BK has averaged a finish right around 14th, and has finished on the lead lap in three of those races. Last fall, Brad had a top 10 car for most of the race but fell back late and finished 17th (Yahoo! race chart here).
13. Matt Kenseth – It’s no secret that the Roush-Fenway Fords aren’t very good here (6 cumulative top 10s in 16 cumulative starts here in the past two years), and I’d consider Kenseth the second-best option in that group of three. He finished 6th in this race last season but his driver rating didn’t back that up (13th-best). Still, he has three finishes of 15th or better in the last five events here and Matt has averaged a finish in the teens (16.5) over his twenty-four career starts at The Paperclip. If you take the #17 this weekend, I wouldn’t expect a top 5, but a top 10 may be possible with some strategy by Jimmy Fennig. I wouldn’t expect him and Brian Vickers to tangle again. Kenseth had a top 10 car before that happened last fall.
14. Joey Logano – In his first start at The Paperclip, Sliced Bread finished four laps off the pace in 32nd place. He learned the track quickly, though, and in the four races after, Logano never finished worse than 13th (including a runner-up finish in 2010). Joey struggled here a bit last fall (driver rating of 67.9) but managed to bring the #20 Toyota home in 18th. Gibbs is one of the two best organizations at this track and Logano has been qualifying well this season, which is a plus on these real short tracks.
15. Jeff Burton – Very rarely will you see Jeff Burton on my top 15 rankings entering a weekend, but I can’t skip over the guy that has the sixth-best average driver rating at Martinsville in the past two years. Over those four events, Burton has amassed two top 10s, but both of those came in the fall events of 2010 and 2011. He was good here back in the day while driving for Roush Racing but since joining Richard Childress Racing, the successful runs have been few and far between for Burton. I’m expecting a mid-teens finish out of the #31 on Sunday. Jeff has nine top 20s in the last ten Martinsville races.
Special Note: Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel of the #55 Toyota this weekend. I don’t see him having another run like a few weeks ago at Bristol, but then again, I didn’t expect much more than a top 20 out of The Sheriff in Thunder Valley, either. His career average finish in thirteen starts at Martinsville is 20.5.
Those To Avoid Entering The Goody’s Fast Relief 500:
Kasey Kahne - He’s with Hendrick now, so his performance might be better at Martinsville than before, but I’m waiting for a real good run out of this team before considering him at a track where his average finish is 20.7. He owns just two top 10s in sixteen career starts and hasn’t finished there since 2006. Unless he looks flat out phenomenal in practice (think Denny Hamlin last weekend) I’m going to pass on KK for this race.
Juan Montoya – He ended up with a top 10 a couple of weeks ago in Bristol, but Montoya had just the sixteenth-best driver rating in that race. At Martinsville, JPM has a career average finish of 14.7, but three of the last four events have ended with him in 19th place or worse. He might be a sleeper in some people’s minds, but I’d rather take his team mate, Jamie McMurray, in that role this weekend.
Paul Menard – He finished in the teens in both Martinsville races during the 2010 season, but overall Paul’s history at this track is very shaky. In nine career starts here, he owns an average finish of 22.7 and has completed just 94.5% of the laps ran. His best driver rating has been 79.4 in all of his starts here.