First Data 500 Preview

Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway’s flat half-mile paperclip kicks off the Round of 8 in NASCAR’s Playoffs, the first of three races in the round. The eight eligible drivers can get the automatic berth into the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17 by winning one of the next three races or scoring the most points. Do poorly at Martinsville to start the round and it’s likely that driver will be one of the four chopped following the Phoenix race in three weeks.

Let’s take a look at each of the candidate's chances at Martinsville and I’ve included the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook’s updated championship odds next to each driver’s name along with how many points they start the round with.

1. Kyle Busch 3/1 (4,046 points) - “I really look forward to this round,’’ Busch said. “I feel like it’s our best round. We run well at all three of those places and we’ve won a few at Texas, we won Martinsville twice and Phoenix has been getting better for us too, winning the last two races there. We just need to continue to execute and do a good job and make sure that we mind our Ps and Qs.’’

It would be the shock of the playoffs if Busch didn’t make the Championship 4 because he’s been so good on all three tracks. The 2015 Cup Champion comes into the Martinsville race with eight straight top-five finishes there, including both of his only Cup wins (2016, 2017). He’s led 1,424 laps between 28 starts which include 16 top-five finishes. This is why the Superbook has him posted as the heavy 5-to-2 favorite to win Sunday. Just for good measure, he’s also got two Truck Series wins at Martinsville, the last coming in April.

2. Martin Truex Jr. 7/2 (4,042) - The 2017 Cup Champion has never won at Martinsville, but he’s come really close in the last few years after struggling there for the first two-thirds of his career. He’s been eighth or better in his last four starts there and had a career-best runner-up during the playoffs during his championship run.

“We know what we need to do,’’ Truex said. “Now it’s just a matter of going out and doing it. I know (crew chief) Cole (Pearn) and the guys have a good plan every week, so I’m confident we can do that. We have been fast, ran up front and led laps at all of these tracks in this round. All eight (playoff) guys would love to go into Martinsville this week and win the race to move on. That’s our goal, but we also feel good about the other tracks too.’’

The thing that makes Truex attractive this week (6/1 odds to win) is how well he’s run with this week’s race package with engines producing 750 horsepower. He’s won four of the 12 races using it which includes winning on his first career short-track -- he swept the season at Richmond.

3. Denny Hamlin 4/1 (4,037) - The Virginian has the best Martinsville resume among all playoff drivers which includes five wins, 14 top-fives, and 1,536 laps led. He’s listed a 9-to-2 to win this week which sounds like a good deal despite not winning there since 2016. He comes in with some serious momentum after winning his fifth race of the season last week.

“It was a great victory for us,” Hamlin said. “Hats off to the entire team, especially Chris Gabehart making all the right calls on those late cautions. Now we’re dialed in and focused on Martinsville and the Round of 8. Martinsville is going to be very pivotal. We’ve always seen great battles there. I feel like it’s the greatest race in the playoffs other than Homestead.”

Beyond momentum, home cooking, and past history -- includes two Truck Series wins, the best reason to support him this week is 10 top-five finishes using this week’s race package. He was fifth in the March 24 Martinsville race.

4. Joey Logano 7/1 (4,030) - A Ford has won the last three races at Martinsville and a Penske car has won three of the past five. Logano won this race last season allowing him to breeze into the Championship 4 and then win his first Cup title. The difference this season is the two different race packages and the one being used at Martinsville and Phoenix hasn’t been so good for him. Both his wins this season have been with the 550 horsepower package and the last one was June 10 at Michigan.

5. Kevin Harvick 4/1 (4,028) - The 2014 Cup Champion grew up racing on shorts track in Bakersfield, CA which is why I’m surprised he’s only got one 2011 Cup win at Martinsville to his credit in 36 starts.

“Some guys just have a knack for Martinsville,” said Harvick who is 14-to-1 to win this week. “There are some weekends when I show up and I feel good about where I’m at and some weekends I just feel like I’ve never been there before. You look at this little bitty racetrack and you think it would be so simple, and you go out there and it becomes so hard.”

Harvick has three Truck Series wins at Martinsville and also won the last Xfinity Series race there in 2006. He was sixth in the spring Cup race and is riding four straight top-10s there. His team has improved all season long with this week’s race package which includes a New Hampshire win in July.

6. Chase Elliott 14/1 (4,024) - He’s got an uphill climb ahead of him with points but he’s got the proper perspective on what has to happen to be racing for the title on Nov. 17.

“I think our best shot at the next round is to win," Elliott said. "I don’t know how many points those guys have but between, they have to have a bunch of points, right? A win would be the greatest way to move on and assure you a spot a Homestead.”

He had a career-best runner-up at Martinsville in the March race after leading 49 laps. He’s been knocking on the door of Martinsville win the past three seasons. In this 2017 playoff race, he looked to be getting his first career win anywhere and got wrecked late by Hamlin. He led 123 laps that day. He’s been in the top-10 in four of his last five starts and also has a 2017 Truck Series win there.

7. Kyle Larson 14/1 (4,011) - The good news is that he won the last race (Dover) using this week’s race package. The bad news is that he’s averaged a 23rd-place finish in 11 Cup starts at Martinsville. He could be in a serious hole right out of the gate.

“If he makes it to Homestead, he might be the favorite to win there, but Martinsville has been a problem for him,” said Superbook manager Ed Salmons. “Eventually, he’ll get the hang of it, but right now it just hasn’t been a good track for him.”

His third-place finish at Martinsville in 2016 remains his only top-10 there. He was 18th in the spring race and has finished 16th or worse in his last five starts there despite starting in the top-10 in all of them, which includes the pole in 2017. It’s a mystery.

8. Ryan Blaney 20/1 (4,009) - “He’s got the hardest road of all the playoff drivers,” Salmons said. “The point system puts him at a disadvantage to start the Round of 8. But this is a very good track for him. He’s had the look of being able to win there the last two years.”

Since joining Team Penske last season he’s had top-five finishes in two of his three Martinsville starts. Last spring he won the second stage and led 145 laps before finishing third. He was fourth this spring. He’s actually been better than his Penske teammates using this week’s race package with six top-fives in 12 races. He’s 14-to-1 to win Sunday at Martinsville and he will be included in my odds to win betting strategy.

Of course we should also mention a driver outside of the playoffs because he dominated the spring race. I throw the word dominate around often to refer to Gerrit Cole or the Patriots defense, but Brad Keselowski’s spring performance at Martinsville was next level dominant stuff. He led 446 of the 500 laps and won both stages before grabbing his second career win there. His 11th-place average finish in 19 starts is third-best among all active drivers.

The only negative I have about Keselowski this week is that so many other teams have gotten better with this race package. The spring April race was only the second race of the season using it. Busch got better it, so did Hamlin and Truex, and so did Elliott and Harvick. Even if he brought the exact same car with the exact same set-up I don’t believe he could duplicate what he did in March.

Top-5 Martinsville Finish Prediction:

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