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First Data 500 Preview
Who's going to be the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Champion? Will it be a former champion like Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. or Kevin Harvick? How about the beginning of a new era with Chase Elliott? Or maybe the upset with an old dog like Clint Bowyer or Kurt Busch?

Four drivers were chopped from championship contention last week at Kansas and only eight remain as the third round of NASCAR's Playoffs begin this weekend at Martinsville Speedway's flat half-mile layout. It's the first of three races in this round and four drivers can advance to the Nov. 18 Championship Race ay Homestead by winning one of the next three races or accumulating the most points.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook updated their odds to win the NASCAR Championship and posted Las Vegan Kyle Busch and Bakersfield's Kevin Harvick as 9/4 co-favorites (Bet $100 to win $225). Both are most likely to advance to the Championship Race just because they've been given a huge head start by carrying over playoff points acquired during the regular season. Busch has seven wins and leads with 4,055 points and Harvick has seven wins and 4,054 points, but no wins in the playoffs. Harvick's last win came at Michigan, 10 races ago, on Aug. 12.

Based on Harvick's past history between the next three races, he's almost assured of being of the four championship drivers. He's only had one career Cup win at Martinsville (2011), but he won the fall Texas race last season and has three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season and at Phoenix, he has nine career wins and owns most of the track records. Kyle Busch also feels good about his chances.

“I like it," Busch said of the third round. "I think it’s going to be good. I really look forward to this round. I feel like it’s our best round. We run well at all three of those places and we won at Texas in the spring, we won Martinsville last fall and Phoenix has been getting better for us, too. We just need to continue to execute and do a good job and make sure that we mind our Ps and Qs. There are certainly some areas that we need to clean up right now and continue to get better because, when you get to Homestead – you’ve got to get there first, but when you get there – you better be picture perfect, so hopefully we can get it all sorted out.”

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Busch should advance as well. He won at Texas April 8 and also has three wins on 1.5s and swept both Richmond races, a set-up which transfers over well to Phoenix. He's got a 17-point lead over third-place Martin Truex Jr. who has been posted at 9/2 odds to win the title. Defending Cup Champion Truex has four wins on the season, but none since July 14 at Kentucky, which is shortly before his team announced they would be closing the doors of their shop permanently at seasons end.

Sitting fourth in points is Chase Elliott (4,018) who the Superbook has listed at 5/1 odds to win it all. If you're a conspiracy buff, this is the driver you want to bet to win the championship. NASCAR is having a down year in attendance the year immediately after NASCAR royalty of Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired and Elliott has royalty bloodlines from his father, Million-dollar Bill, also known as Awesome-Bill from Dawsonville. Chase is ready for the additional pressure as the playoffs continue.

“I think that needs to be the mindset, for sure," Elliott said. "I think every week has to be pressure-packed. You have to keep the pressure on yourselves. If you were to make it to Homestead, you have to pretty much win Homestead. I think you have to have that mentality every week. The points game is nice, I guess, to play. Really, you just need to care about winning. If you're trying to win, putting yourself in position to win, that's way more important than just barely trying to squeak through. Having the ability to win, do it weekly, putting yourselves in those positions week by week is the most important thing. If we can do that these next three weeks, I think we can give ourselves a chance.”

NASCAR needs Elliott to be successful and he's hard-charging and running his best of the season with three wins in his last 11 starts, his first three wins of his career after none his first two seasons. His win Sunday at Kansas was the first Chevrolet to win on a 1.5-mile track after Toyota and Ford won four each.

The next three championship-eligible drivers each have 4,015 points led Joey Logano at 8/1 odds, Clint Bowyer at 15/1 and Las Vegan Kurt Busch at 25/1. Bowyer won the March 26 Martinsville race, one his two wins on the season and his teammate Busch is a two-time winner at Martinsville, the last coming in 2014. Busch is running much better than Bowyer at the moment. Another Stewart Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola (4,006) is 25/1 to win it all and he's going to need some help to advance or have to win one of the three races in this round.

Of the eight drivers, Elliott and Logano appear to offer the most value, and I think Logano will have a great run Sunday at Martinsville even though he's never won there. He started third and finished sixth in the spring race there, which surprisingly ended an eight-race streak of leading a lap. His key to leading laps has been starting up front. He's started sixth or better in his last 11 starts, which includes four poles, the last coming in this race last season. He's the last Team Penske driver still standing in the playoffs, a team that was drastically improved the last two months.

The best active drivers at Martinsville have been Jimmie Johnson with nine wins and native Virginian Denny Hamlin with five wins. Both need a win over the next month to keep their streaks going of winning at least one Cup race every year of their career.

“I’ve had a lot of success at Martinsville and I think it’s because for a long time, once you hit on a certain setup, it worked for an extended period of time," said Johnson who last won at Martinsville in the fall of 2016.

"For some reason I excel at these unique, quirky tracks like Martinsville. There is a lot of history there for me, our team, and it's where (Hendrick Motorsports owner) Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and this organization got their first win. So, it's special for multiple reasons and as a driver I always want to do well there. I look forward to it – it’s like going back in time to the roots of the sport.”

This is probably the last track of the season that Johnson has a legitimate chance to win and continue his streak. But maybe, more importantly, it's probably the last chance that Johnson and his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus have to win again together. They've had 83 wins together. It's an all-time Hall of Fame combination. Seven titles together. Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan only had six together. I'll be rooting for them to make some noise and get another grandfather clock. Imagine noon at Johnson's home with nine clocks going off at the same time.

Top-5 Martinville Finish Prediction:

1) #22 Joey Logano (7/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (5/2)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
4) #9 Chase Elliott (6/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (6/1)

  
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