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Friday, October 22, 2010

NASCAR Martinsville Preview: Tums Fast Relief 500...Beyond the Numbers

Much like Talladega, it is tough to predict how any driver will perform at this week's Martinsville Speedway race. The track conditions can vary dramatically due to air and track temperatures, whether the sun is out or it is overcast, and even minor adjustments can cause big changes to a race car on the track. Martinsville Speedway is a .526 mile long, narrow oval located in Ridgeway, Virginia just south of Martinsville. Martinsville has the distinction of being the shortest track on the Cup circuit and is sometimes referred to as the Paperclip due to it's appearance from above. The Tums Fast Relief 500 takes place Sunday afternoon, and includes 500 laps to equal 263 miles before the checkers wave.
 Denny Hamlin has finished in the top ten in the last seven races at Martinsville. Hamlin has won three of the last four races at Martinsville and came in second to Kevin Harvick in the one he did not win. Denny posts an impressive 6.6 average finish at this week's track, and comes in with a healthy dose of confidence – as well he should, considering he has only finished outside of the top ten in one of his nine Cup race starts at Martinsville. Sitting just 41 points behind the Chase leader, Hamlin doesn't want to let this Sunday's opportunity pass him by.

Sitting just a bit farther back in Chase points, Kevin Harvick is 77 points off the lead in second place but has yet to post a win at Martinsville in a Cup Series event. Harvick's best finish in his 18 Cup Series starts has been seventh place on three occasions in 2003, 2006, and 2008. In recent appearances at this track, Kevin has two top ten finishes in his last five Cup starts. With an average finish of 18.2 Harvick needs to come off of the green flag strong and both he and the #33 Richard Childress Penzoil team must make no errors in the pits.

Jimmie Johnson is the only driver with a better average finish at Martinsville than Denny Hamlin; Jimmie posts a 5.4 average finishing spot. Sitting atop of the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship leader board, Johnson is coming into this weekend's Tums Fast Relief 500 with tons of confidence. This confidence will transfer to the track as the #48 Lowe's Team has been on a roll since the Chase started. Watch for the Hendrick Motor Sports Team of Johnson and Chad Knaus to be near – or at – the front by the end of Sunday's race.

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 Clint Bowyer may be effectively out of the Chase in 12th place but he is not ready to give up on his season. With more than 50% of Clint's finishes at Martinsville resulting in top ten finishes Bowyer can stand to be a bit optimistic toward this weekend. Clint has had some success at this track in the Nationwide Series – he holds the record for fastest qualifying for his efforts at the 2006 Nationwide race. Four of the last five starts in Cup Series Racing at Martinsville have ended in top ten finishes for the #33 RCR Team. Clint needs a strong finish to move up in points; he is 44 points back from his nearest competitor in the points.

Juan Pablo Montoya will be the first of non-Chase drivers to make a top ten finish out of Sunday's race. He post a 14.6 average finish at Martinsville and has two top ten finishes out of his seven Cup Series starts at this track. Juan is coming off an 11th place finish last week, and has just two finishes outside of the top fifteen in his last ten Cup starts. Montoya should finish strong in the Tums Fast Relief 500 on Sunday afternoon.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the second non-Chase driver I have finishing in the top ten this week. Dale has a 14.1 average finish at Martinsville Speedway, but can claim top ten finishes in just under half of his 21 Cup starts here...and he hasn't had a top ten in either of his two most recent Martinsville starts. Earnhardt needs a strong finish, as since his 4th place finish in New Hampshire five races back he hasn't found a way to finish within the top 15. This could be a good comeback week for Dale.

Carl Edwards has a good shot at a strong finish on Sunday; he claims a 17.5 average finish at Martinsville and although he has no wins to his credit at this track, has been good on Short-Track racing. Edwards posts top ten finishes in one-third of his Short-Track Cup Series Starts. Carl's best finish at Martinsville was in this race in 2009 when he took home a third place finish. Watch for Carl to drive agreesively to get himself back into the points race – at an even 200 points behind Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, for Carl this weekend is do-or-die when it comes to the Chase.

Rounding out my non-Chase three for the top ten is Jamie McMurray, a driver who has been underestimated for the most part of this 2010 season. Even with his wins at major events like the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, no one really expects much out of Jamie – except for Jamie himself. With nine top ten finishes in McMurray's 15 Cup Series starts at Martinsville Speedway Jamie comes into this week expecting to perform well. McMurray's win last week could give him the extra confidence and momentum his team needs to end the day with a top ten finish on Sunday.

Coming into Martinsville with a 12.6 average finish in Virginia is Tony Stewart. After loosing a spot in the Chase standings after a 21st place finish last week Stewart wants to take that spot back and then some. Stewart has shown he can navigate the Paperclip, with three wins, and 13 top ten finishes in his 23 Cup starts at Martinsville. When Tony wants something, the rest of the field better watch out, because Stewart is willing to take it, and Tony wants to get back withing a realistic reach of the leaders in the Chase to the Championship.
 Kyle Busch earns a spot in this week's top ten finishers after gaining four spots in Chase points standings due to last week's runner-up finish. Kyle has no wins at Martinsville in his 11 starts here, but can claim four top five finishes in his prior Cup appearances at this track. With a 17.8 average finish Kyle may not be a favorite to win, but I think he will bring a tough race and finish in the lower half of the top ten in Sunday's race.

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I pick Kevin Harvick for the win this Sunday at Martinsville Speedway with Jimmie Johnson in the runner-up position and Denny Hamlin in third. Finishing out the top ten will be Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart, and Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth will continue to lose points on the Chase leaders, and a strong finish by Bowyer will move him into the 11th place in the standings, leaving Kenseth in 12th in the Chase.

Tune in on Friday afternoon for live practice coverage on SPEED, starting at 11:30 a.m. EST. Qualifying coverage starts on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. Saturday practice is live at 10 a.m. on Speed, whereas Saturday's second practice session will begin at 11:15 a.m. But will air on a significant delay, not coming on until 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2. NASCAR RaceDay begins Sunday morning at 10 a.m. At Noon, pre-race coverage picks up on ESPN2 with coverage of the Tums Fast Relief 500 from Martinsville Speedway switching over to ESPN at 1 p.m. Don't miss the sixth race in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship!

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