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First Data 500 Preview
The goal for the eight drivers still alive in NASCAR's Playoffs is the get out the gate fast in the Round of 8 with a win at Martinsville Speedway and earn that automatic berth into the Championship 4 at Homestead next month. The three races in this round instantly make a couple drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch favored to be advancing to the Championship Race.

“I look forward to the next round – we’ve got Martinsville, we’ve got Texas and we’ve got Phoenix,' said Kyle Busch who sits second in points behind Truex. "Those are all three really strong tracks for us. Texas is a bit of a wild card with the repave, but there’s no reason why we can’t run well there.

"Honestly, I don’t know that there are tracks on the schedule that are weak points for us unless, obviously, there are crapshoot-type races like Talladega or Daytona. We lived through Kansas last weekend, so we get to move on.”

Any playoff driver that wins any of the next three races gets an automatic berth into the Championship Race at Homestead. And of the eight drivers, a couple of them are really good at Martinville's flat half-mile layout such as Jimmie Johnson, and a couple aren't so accomplished there such as Truex.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won on the flat half-mile layout nine times to lead all active drivers, In 31 career starts he's averaged a 7.5 finish and led an incredible 2,839 laps. This is probably Johnson's best chance to advance to the Championship because his car has been kind of junky on 1.5-mile tracks or at least light years behind in performance compared to the likes of Truex and Busch.

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“It’s not back to zero with all those stage points," said Joshnon who sits fifth in points. "For us to advance moving forward, we’ve got to win. Martinsville is not a bad track for us. So, hopefully we can repeat last year’s performance there. It’s pretty simple from here on out, we’ve got to get some speed in our cars and we’ve got to win a race.”

Next on the Martinsville win list among active drivers is Virginia native Denny Hamlin. In 23 starts he's got five wins, a 10th-place average and led 1,387 laps. He loves this track more than any other and considers it like a home field edge for him and his No. 11 team. He last won there in 2015 and he finished third last season. In the first race there this season he got involved in a wreck late and finished 30th. He should be considered the favorite to win this week just because his special set of skills on his home track.

Brad Keselowski captured his first career Martinsville win in April leading 116 laps. Kyle Busch finished second and led a race high 274 laps. The two rivals battled back and forth in the final 150 laps. It was good short track racing. I like them to both be good again here, especially Busch who has top-five finishes there in his last four starts, including his first win there last spring.

“We’ve run well the last couple of times at Martinsville and we’re definitely pumped about getting back there," said Busch. "I’m hoping we can have a really good car there again this time around like we did last time. We led a lot of laps and we were really fast and came home second there in the spring. We tested there a few weeks ago and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys had a really fast racecar there, and we feel really good about what we have for this weekend. Hoping that we can finish one spot better there than the spring this time around with our M&M’s Halloween Camry.”

Truex leads the series with seven wins and he's a huge favorite every week, but not this week. This isn't a 1.5-mile track and he just never has warmed up to the track in his career. In 23 career starts he has a 20th-place average finish and only two top-five finishes. He's not a good bet here despite having the first pit stop, but look for him to win at Texas next week.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
3) #2 Brad Keselowski (6/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
5) #24 Chase Elliott (18/1)

  
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