STP 500 Preview
April 2, 2013
By Micah Roberts
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Denny Hamlin is a four-time winner on Martinsville's flat half-mile track, but he won't be one of the favorites this week because he won't be racing due the scrum he and Joey Logano got into two weeks ago at California Speedway that injured his back. Hamlin surely would have been one of the favorites to win on his home track and also would have moved higher in the standings.
Under past season points scoring, his championship hopes would have been finished by missing a race.
But under the current rules that reward the final two positions of the Chase for drivers within the top-20 who won the most during the first 26 races, Hamlin still has a glimmer of hope. This is why the LVH Super Book still has Hamlin posted at 18/1 odds (Bet $100 to win $1,800) to win the championship. That may seem like low odds considering Hamlin is expected to miss up to five races, but there is that small window of opportunity that makes it a possibility.
The bottom line for Hamlin when he does come back is to simply win as many races as possible and hope he can climb into the top-20. Last season, Hamlin had five wins -- good enough to tie for the most in the Sprint Cup Series.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. currently leads the series in points and is the only driver to finish in the top-10 of all five races. The LVH currently has Junior at 10/1 odds (Bet $100 to win $1,000) to win the title.
This week at Martinsville, Junior won't be one of the favorites, but he should keep his top-10 streak going. He's never won at Martinsville, but does have an 11.4 average finish over his last 20 starts there -- the fourth best average behind Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Hamlin over that span.
Johnson will again be the favorite, and even more so now without Hamlin, but it's for good reason. He's tied with Gordon for the most active wins at Martinsville with seven, including last fall when he won with all kinds of Chase for the Championship pressure on him. That win put Johnson in a tie for the Championship lead with Brad Keselowski.
It's amazing to look at Johnson's career at Martinsville because he's just so consistent. The 5.5 average finish is amazing in itself, but the fact that he hasn't finished worse than 12th in his last 20 starts is one of the more mind blowing streaks in NASCAR. It's hard enough for a driver to just have car that is good enough to compete well over a long haul, but to also not have any kind of engine failure or be involved in a wreck -- that is a special streak.
Gordon has seven wins as well, but none since sweeping the 2005 season. However, he still has been one of the best -- compiling 11 top-5 finishes over his last 14 Martinsville starts. He's currently sitting 18th in points, but we should expect to see him rise up the chart rapidly after Sunday where he should get his first top-5 of the season. Because of Hamlin being out, Gordon's odds will also be lower than in recent races. Sunday will be the Johnson and Gordon show.
Drivers who could present a challenge to Gordon and Johnson are Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick. Busch has never won at Martinsville, but was runner-up last fall -- his seventh top-5 finish on the track. Busch also comes off a California win. Harvick and Stewart each won a Martinsville race during the 2011 season.
The best long shot possibility this week is 2002 Martinsville winner Kurt Busch who will be looking for his third straight top-5 finish on the season. Busch is listed at 100/1, and it's good not that the No. 78 car has finished 16th or better in three straight Martinsville starts.
Top-5 Finish Prediction
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (6/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (9/2)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
5) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)