Tough to pick against favorites Hamlin, Johnson
Drivers have combined to win the past nine Cup Series events at Martinsville
By Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM
March 30, 2011 12:29 PM, EST
Five weeks, five winners, and five different track types -- NASCAR's variety has been strong all season. Now fantasy owners' attention turns to Martinsville Speedway, which actually has two venues from earlier in the season that will provide insight into this week's handicap. Martinsville is a short, flat track and it shares features with both Phoenix International Raceway -- since its minimal banking requires drivers to slow down before entering the corner in order to hammer the accelerator at the apex -- and Bristol Motor Speedway because that track is also a half-mile bullring.
Jeff Gordon snapped a long winless streak at Phoenix, but so far that single strong run has been the highlight of his season. Kyle Busch won at Bristol, but Phoenix has never been one of his stronger tracks. Meanwhile, several strong drivers remain winless through the first five races, and that means NASCAR has an excellent opportunity to keep their streak of unique winners alive.
A lot can happen on a bullring. Jamming 43 cars into a half-mile arena is a recipe for disaster and Martinsville always hosts two of the most exciting races of the season. Fortunately, NASCAR's current car is more durable than ever and a casual brush with the wall or another competitor won't end a driver's day. For that reason, Martinsville can be prone to streaks.
Last year was an exception to that rule since several traditionally strong drivers struggled in the spring. Only four drivers swept the top 10 on this track last year, but in both 2008 and 2009, seven drivers posted back-to-back top-10s each year, so your list of favorites will come from drivers with a wealth of recent success.
Two of the drivers who swept the top-10 last year are arguably the most dominant racers in its 50 plus year history. You would be hard pressed to find the level of control from any driver at any time as that shown by Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin in recent years. One of those two drivers has won the past nine Cup events at Martinsville and more often than not, they are one another's toughest competition.
Hamlin desperately needs a good run this week after blowing an engine at Auto Club Speedway that has him languishing 21st in the point standings, but if his turnaround is going to come anywhere, it will be at Martinsville. He enters the weekend with a three-race winning streak that includes both races last year. In 2009, he came one position shy of also sweeping the season with a runner-up finish in the spring and a victory in the fall. In fact, he has practically never stumbled on his home track of Martinsville and his last nine events there have all ended in results of sixth or better with an average finish of 2.4. Drivers simply don't get closer to perfect than that.
Unless of course, their name happens to be Jimmie Johnson. His dominance is no less amazing and even longer-lived. He also won three consecutive races from 2006 through 2007, took one race off to finish fourth in spring 2008, and then posted back-to-back victories again that fall and the following spring. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne's fabled Rappaccini's Daughter -- a girl with a single, minor flaw that kept her chained to this earth -- both Hamlin and Johnson have one single poor performance at the beginning of their careers. Hamlin wrecked in his rookie season and finished 37th; Johnson was sidelined by a vibration in his inaugural run, but in the 17 races on this track since then, the pilot of the No. 48 has never failed to score a top-10 and amassed an average finish of 3.6. There is no reason to even think about anyone else as a favorite to win the Goody's Fast Relief 500.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the other drivers in the field won't try. The last driver other than Hamlin or Johnson to win on this track was Tony Stewart in spring 2006, but he can hardly be considered a favorite this week after finishing in the mid-20s in both Martinsville races last year. He's hungry, however, and has a great record on this track, so fantasy owners won't be surprised to see him running with the leaders.
Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.Watch
A stronger dark horse this week might be Jeff Gordon. He swept victory lane in both 2003 and 2005. In fact, if you include him alongside Hamlin and Johnson, those three drivers have won all but two of the last 16 Martinsville races. While the accomplishments of the No. 11 and No. 48 teams haven't left any room in victory lane, Gordon has been nearly as strong and he entered last fall with an 11-race top-five streak to his credit. The fact that he finished 20th in the fall and has struggled so much in the early part of this season, however, certainly qualifies him in the role of dark horse.
A more traditional sleeper might be Joey Logano, however. Like his teammate Hamlin, he has struggled in the early part of the season and not all of it has been engine related. Mental lapses at both Bristol and last week at Auto Club drew penalties from NASCAR at critical junctures of the races and stalled advances through the field. His hope of becoming a surprise contender for the Chase have all but vanished, but the only thing he can do is regroup and concentrate on the job at hand. Last year, he nearly stole the victory from Hamlin in the spring and to prove that was not a fluke, he backed it up with a sixth in the fall.
Last week, Kevin Harvick made the Auto Club 400 exciting in the final laps. He made a move on Johnson in the final corner that would have made Dale Earnhardt Sr. proud when he bump-drafted the No. 48 hard into the turn and then passed it when Johnson was forced to lay off the throttle to avoid wrecking. He finished third on this track last year and he has to be on a lot of fantasy owners' minds, but it would be surprising if he could win back-to-back races this week. Overall Martinsville isn't one of his better tracks and last fall's top-five is his only finish better than seventh in his career there. Worse still, he seems to have inferior efforts in the spring. Last year, he developed brake problems in this race to finish 35th and only one of his eight career top-10s at Martinsville have come in their first race of the season.
Matt Kenseth has been heading in the right direction in the past several weeks, but he is another driver who will be hard-pressed to continue his streak. After finishing 34th in the Daytona 500 to start the season, he has finished 12th or better in the past four races and his Bristol and Auto Club results were identical fourth-place finishes. Martinsville has been a little more aloof to him during Kenseth's career. The Roush-Fenway Racers are not necessarily the first ones to pop into fantasy owners' heads on flat tracks, even though they have improved in recent years. Last year, Carl Edwards was one of the four drivers to sweep the top 10 there, but Kenseth has not had a finish that good since fall 2008 and his average result in the last two years has been a modest 17.5.
Fantasy Power Ranking
Short tracks (pass three years)
* The Power Average is the average finish during the last three years, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five, and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results. For example a driver who has led the most laps receives a hypothetical first-place finish, the driver who leads the second most laps receives a hypothetical second-place finish, and so on. This rewards drivers who competed at the front of the pack for the majority of the race, even if an unfortunate event takes them out of contention at the very end of the race. A driver's recent record in the support series is also factored in, as is his average running position as provided by NASCAR Statistical Services. Failures to qualify are credited to the driver as if they were a finishing position (the first non-qualifier is assigned a 44th-place finish). The short tracks are Martinsville Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Richmond International Raceway.