October 21, 2014
By Micah Roberts
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It's kind of ironic in this twist and turns of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase drama that we go from the biggest track in the series -- Talladega Superspeedway -- to the smallest at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. It’s half-mile short track racing time and this layout -- with relatively no banking -- will have a huge impact on which of the eight eligible drivers win the Championship in four weeks at Homestead.
Martinsville starts the three race Eliminator Round, and after races at Texas and Phoenix, four of the eight drivers will be eliminated with a championship game of sorts at Homestead for the final four remaining drivers. They have to either win one of the next three or total more points to advance. There's a possibility that only one driver will advance by points. Then, the best finish among the last four remaining at Homestead wins the Sprint Cup.
The cool thing about this round is that there are three vastly different tracks and each has drivers that traditionally do well on them. The Westgate SuperBook has Jeff Gordon listed as the 5/2 favorite (Bet $100 to win $250) to be that final driver standing at Homestead with Brad Keselowski at 3/1 odds. Keselowski advanced to The Eliminator round in dramatic fashion with a win at Talladega.
Keselowski will have an edge at Texas and Phoenix, but he’s not considered one of the favorites at Martinsville where his best finish is fourth in this race last fall. If he can somehow manage to finish in the top-10 like he did during 2012 championship season when he finished sixth, he’ll be in a good shape to advance because he’s absolute money on the other two tracks and will be favored to win. However, if he finishes 38th again like he did in the first Martinsville race back in March, he’ll be in a situation again like Talladega where he’ll need to win to advance.
Gordon should get off to a great start in this round because he’s one of the best ever at Martinsville, a track that has been running continually in the Cup series since 1949. Gordon has eight wins on the track that looks like a paper-clip, but most importantly is that he won this race last fall. He had been stuck on seven wins since 2005 as Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were doing most of the winning.
In between the wins, Gordon had 12 top-5 finishes in 15 starts, an amazing run of consistency and it was a huge moment when he finally visited victory lane again there last season. He finished 12th in the spring race this season.
The only driver just as smooth as Gordon at Martinsville is Johnson who also has eight career wins. He won five of six races there from 2006-09 and won there last spring. In the spring, he led the most laps before settling for second behind Kurt Busch. Johnson lost the lead with 11 laps to go.
Now that Johnson has been eliminated from winning his record tying seventh Cup title, it will be interesting to see where the team goes from here. Are they in test mode for 2015 or do they come out swinging trying to steal wins from Chasers. Regardless of what mode they’re in, Martinsville should still be a good track for him where in many ways it‘s a track that is about the driver.
No one is talking about Denny Hamlin as a viable Sprint Cup contender because of Keselowski, Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano getting most of the spotlight, but he could punch himself a ticket into the Homestead race with a win this week and then care less about what happens in the next two races. Hamlin hails from Virginia and is a four time winner there including three straight from 2009-10. That was his last win and he’s raced there six times since. He looked extremely sluggish with a 19th-place finish in March in a car that was probably only the 30th best.
The hope here for Hamlin is that his Joe Gibbs Racing organization shows some urgency into giving him something he can win with like he’s had in the past. It should be a collaborative effort by all the JGR resources to make his car great again and give their driver a shot to win a championship. The same goes for teammate Matt Kenseth’s crew. If Hamlin doesn’t have a top-5 car at Martinsville, then the season is likely over for them.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (5/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
4) #15 Clint Bowyer (15/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)