One driver could grab the “Golden Ticket” to Homestead Sunday at NASCAR’s last original track.
This week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolls into Ridgeway, Va. for the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway. It’ll be the 33rd race of the season, the seventh race of the Chase and the first of the Eliminator Round.
Martinsville is a .526 mile (.847 km) paperclip short track located in Southern Virginia. Opened in 1948, it’s the only remaining track that’s been on the NASCAR schedule since the first season in 1949. If Bristol were not my home track, Martinsville would be my favorite track. It’s a very close second to Thunder Valley.
In all my years of following NASCAR, tracks have come and gone and some have changed dramatically. While some argue that Bristol has changed for the worse, I’ll forever argue that the racing at Thunder Valley now is better because of the changes (please finish reading this piece before you jump to the comment section to argue Bristol with me). There was a time when Richmond was high on my favorite track list, but for reasons I don’t comprehend, the racing has gotten progressively worse there. But Martinsville is the one track that’s changed the least over my time. The way they raced at Martinsville when I came into this sport is virtually the same as the way they race at Martinsville now.
A lap of Martinsville begins coming off Turn 4. You moderately get back onto the throttle and accelerate down the frontstretch. Some drivers use a different reference point on the inside wall, but when your car reaches that point, you let off the gas and hit the brakes. You let off the gas and roll through Turn 1. When you reach the center, you get back onto the throttle and accelerate down the backstretch. Once you reach your reference point on the backstretch, you hit the brakes going into Turn 3. You let off the brakes when you reach the concrete and roll through it. You squeeze the throttle rolling through Turn 4 and accelerate down the front again. When you figure out the rhythm of Martinsville, you should be able to click off laps of roughly 19-seconds (close to 100 mph average).
Being a short track, passing is a premium at Martinsville. It often requires using the chrome bumper to move the competition out of the way. This often leads to cars in the wall and tempers boiling over.
Being the first race of the Eliminator Round, a win here guarantees a spot in the championship race in three weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At 6/1, Jeff Gordon is tied with five other drivers as the odds-on favorite to win this weekend (Vegas Insider). His 62.22 percent top-five average at Martinsville – 28 top-five finishes in 45 starts – is his best at any racetrack. His 80 percent top-10 average – 36 top-10 finishes in 45 starts – is second only to his 100 percent top-10 average at Kentucky Speedway. His eight wins at the Virginia paperclip is his best at any track. He’s led close to four-thousand laps – 3,744 to be exact – and run over 22-thousand – 22,269 exactly – in 45 starts. His 6.9 average finish is his best at any track. His career driver rating at Martinsville is 119.1 (second only to teammate Jimmie Johnson at 119.4). Finally, not only has Gordon never failed to finish a race at Martinsville, he’s only finished outside the top-10 nine times. It’s no joke when the pundits say that Martinsville is Gordon’s playground.
But the driver of the No. 24 car isn’t the only driver to watch this weekend. His teammate Jimmie Kenneth Johnson can lay claim to the Virginia paperclip being his playground as well. His top-five average of 66.67 percent – 18 top-five finishes in 27 starts – bests Big Daddy Gordon, as does his 81.48 percent top-10 average (22 top-10 finishes in 27 starts). However, he can’t say he’s finished every race at Martinsville and he’s amassed a lower average finish – 7.3 – than his car owner. His last two outings have also not been kind with finishes of 32nd and 35th. With that said, it would be wrong to count out the driver of the No. 48 car this weekend.
Another 6/1 driver is James Dennis Alan “Denny” Hamlin (yes, that’s his full name). He has five wins at Martinsville, including this past spring. He has a 52.63 percent top-five average – 10 top-five finishes in 19 starts – and a 78.95 percent top-10 average (15 to-10 finishes in 19 starts). He’s led over one-thousand laps (1,312 exactly) and has an 8.3 average finish. He’s only failed to finish one race at Martinsville. This past spring, he led 91 laps and held off a hard-charging Brad Keselowski to score the victory. While he was knocked out of the Chase last week at Talladega, expect to see the driver of the No. 11 car up front this Sunday.
Next is Kevin Michael Harvick. He only has one win in his career at Martinsville and his stats aren’t as stellar. He has a 10.71 percent top-five average – three top-five finishes in 28 starts – and a 46.43 percent top-10 average (13 top-10 finishes in 28 starts). While he’s failed to finish just one race at Martinsville, he’s only averaged a 16.1 career average finish here. The one positive stat that leads me to somewhat understand why he’s at 6/1 is that he was the dominant car of the race in March leading 154 of the 500 laps and he finished eighth. However, I don’t expect the driver of the No. 4 car to really challenge for the win Sunday.
Finally, the fifth 6/1 driver is Joseph Thomas “Joey” Logano. He has zero wins at Martinsville and his stats are the worst of the five 6/1 drivers. He has a 30.77 percent top-five average – four top-five finishes in 13 starts – and a 38.46 percent top-10 average (five top-10 finishes in 13 starts). However, he can join Jeff Gordon in saying he’s never failed to finish a race at Martinsville. His 13.2 average finish is also better than that of Harvick. He’s finished the last three races here in the top-five and led a combined 207 laps. Logano is also riding a three-race win streak after sweeping the Contender Round – which is also the first time a Ford driver has done that since Mark Martin in 1994 – and has all the momentum in the world. Expect to see the driver of the No. 22 car up front this Sunday.
Tune in this Sunday to see who gets both the grandfather clock and golden ticket to Homestead-Miami Speedway. Coverage of the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 begins at 12:30 p.m. on NBCSN. You can also hear the radio broadcast on MRN and Sirius XM (subscription required).
Joe Moore, Jeff Striegle and seven-time Martinsville winner Rusty Wallace will be in the booth. Dave Moody will be in Turn 3 calling the action on the backstretch. Alex Hayden, Winston Kelley and Steve Post will work pit road. Eli Gold will join the crew on Sunday to host the pre-race show at noon. As always, the lineup is subject to change.