NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) series ran its thirty-second race of the 2012 season at the Kansas Speedway last week, where Matt Kenseth bet it all and won the Hollywood Casino 400. Jimmie Johnson, after hitting the wall earlier in the event, battled back to finish not just on the lead lap, but posted an incredible ninth-place finish. And considering that Brad Keselowski kept Johnson at bay in the Sprint Cup standings and only seven points ahead, Keselowski will have his hands full this week to maintain that lead.
Sprint Cup teams roll into southwestern Virginia and the Martinsville Speedway (MVS) for the Tums Fast Relief 500, where we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, but there will likely be plenty of uneasy stomachs on Sunday. However, with Hurricane Sandy making her appearance along the east coast and threatening to put a damper on things for the Carolinas into the DELMARVA (Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia for those who have never heard that term before), NASCAR will try to get the race in Sunday, because there may not be a chance on Monday into Tuesday as the storm rolls through. And since Martinsville doesn’t have any lights and the sun sets at 6:27pm EDT, NASCAR officials will have their work cut out for them to get the race in if too many Caution Flags wave. If that’s the case, be prepared for teams to race to the “darkness”, rather than to the finish.
Hopefully, this week’s race will be nothing like the Caution-fest last week at Kansas, where we set the 2012 record for the most Caution Flags with fourteen. Mostly people getting into the wall or just lose their grip and spin, but it’s a different kind of racing here. Beatin’ and Bangin’ will be the order of the day. That Caution Flag record just may be in jeopardy.
The race run is for 500 laps (263 miles) on the 0.526-mile, paper clip-shaped oval, with broadcasts starting at 11am EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, followed by NASCAR Countdown at 1pm EDT on ESPN , and race coverage starting a little earlier than normal on ESPN at 1:30pm EDT. Martinsville salutes some of America’s Heroes, with U.S. Army soldiers Sgts Chad Willis and Chad Noble, Specialist Matthew Lee McClintock, and Sgt First Class Albert Boston as Grand Marshalls giving the Command to Fire Engines, with Sgt First Class Matthew Solomon waving the Green Flag to start the race at approximately 2:01pm EDT. With the approaching hurricane, don’t be surprised if there is no pre-race flyover, as many of the aircraft stationed in that area of the country may be conducting “hurrivac” procedures and moving their aircraft to other bases in safer locations.
The Tums Fast Relief 500, like Kansas and Talladega, seem to end up being Wild Cards of sorts, since there are typically so many wrecks. Jimmie Johnson leads the field to Green Sunday as the Coors Light Pole Award winner, with NSC Points leader Brad Keselowski starting waaaaaaay back in thirty-second. This poor qualifying run for Keso might be the beginning of the end for his title hopes, but should he manage a win, it won’t be an impossible feat. Kurt Busch won here in 2002 with a thirty-sixth place starting position, so anything could (and probably will) happen.
This week will also see the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr to the grid, as doctors have cleared him to race again after a two-week hiatus following the two concussions in both the Kansas tire test in late August, and the more recent last-lap wreck at Talladega three weeks ago.
Best Bets: I try not to continuously select the same small group of drivers, but at this stage of the season, these are the best teams that always bubble up to the top of the scoring tower.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Express Toyota)- Denny, as a Virginia native, considers this one of his “home” tracks. He’s third overall in wins among active drivers, and is first in points earned in the last four runs here on the Paperclip. Hamlin has placed no worse than twelfth in the last four races at MVS, including one win, and currently sits sixth in points earned in the last four Cup races, as well as fourth in points over the last four short track races. He’s got four wins overall, with nine top-five, and twelve top-ten finishes, averaging 6.4 over fourteen total races run here. His FedEx Express Toyota will be very welcome in Victory Lane; Denny will start fifth, and was fifth-fastest in final practice. Question is, can he get that car up front and keep it there, in an effort to move up in the NSC points standings. By the way, Denny also won the Camping World Truck Series race Kroger 200 on Saturday here, so that may give him a significant edge going into Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie has the second-highest number of victories among active drivers right now, having scored six wins, fourteen top-five, and eighteen top ten finishes, with an average finish of 5.8 over 21 career races here. He’s managed to place no worse than twelfth in three of the last four races here at MVS (fourth overall in points earned over those four), currently is third in points earned over the last four short track races, and fourth in the last four Cup outings. Chad Knaus definitely pulled an ace from up his sleeve last week to salvage that ninth-place run, and he’ll do the same this week I’m sure. “Five Time” will lead the field to Green as the Pole-sitter, and was sixth-fastest in final practice.
Probables: One Martinsville veteran winner, and one wannabe in this group.
Jeff Gordon (#24 Pepsi Max Chevy)- Jeff has the most wins here among active drivers, scoring seven victories, twenty-five top five, and thirty-one top ten finishes. And that’s with an average finish of 7.1 over the 39 (yes, I said THIRTY-NINE) races he’s run here. Gordo finished third in this race last year, and has been no worse than twentieth in the last four runs at MVS. And despite the varied finishes lately at MVS, Gordon is second in points earned in the last four short track races, and fourth in the last four Cup races. I know his career is beginning to wane with talk of retirement sometime soon, but I don’t think Jeff is quite done yet as he tries to claw his way into yet another NSC Championship. Gordon is seventh in the standings a mere 55 points back, so if he thinks he has a chance, he’d better hope a whole lot of wrecks occur with the six drivers above him. He’ll start eleventh, but was third-fastest in the final practice session.
Brian Vickers (#55 MyClassicGarage.com Toyota)- Vickers has had some mixed success at Martinsville when he has run here, and only was eighteenth in the spring race. But despite the relative inexperience here (although he’s had plenty of experience getting other drivers turned around and into the fence), Vickers continues his part-time driving for the Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) #55 machine in his last start of 2012 (he’ll run a part-time schedule again next year, sharing the #55 with Mark Martin). MWR has been consistently putting good cars on the track this year, as evidenced by two of their three drivers in the Chase (Martin Truex Jr and Clint Bowyer), and when the #55 has been on the track, they haven’t fared to badly, either. Vickers put up some good runs in qualifying and practice, where he’ll start on the outside of the front row in second, and actually “won” the final practice session. If he can keep Jimmie Johnson from tearing off in the lead, he might even just get sometime in the front.
Dark Horses: A mixed bag in the stable this week.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 Diet Mt Dew/National Guard/Amp Energy Chevy)- Dale Jr loves running at MVS, but has still to find Victory Lane; he’s posted ten top-five and fourteen top-ten finishes, averaging 12.6 over twenty-five races. Junebug finished third here in the spring, and has been no worse than seventh in the last four races here. He’s also third overall in points earned over the last four MVS races, so I’m not counting him out; getting back into the car is what makes me rank him as a Dark Horse this week. Dale may be starting back in twentieth, but he was second-fastest in final practice. Much like Matt Kenseth as one of my Probables in my predictions last week, Jr is starting back a little ways, but considering the speed he has in his car and Crew Chief Steve Letarte, don’t be surprised to see the 88 up front.
Clint Bowyer (#15 5-Hour Energy Benefitting Avon Foundation for Women Toyota)- I had a hard time deciding who my second DH was going to be this week, as I had to choose from Clint and Matt Kenseth. The numbers actually look a little better for Clint, who like Kenseth is winless at MVS, averages 14.7 over 13 races, and has a top-five and seven top-ten finishes. Clint is also fifth overall in points earned in the last four short track races, as well as the last four Cup races (Kenseth is eighth in the last two stats). Bowyer has been the surprise spoiler this year, having scored three victories; I’m thinking he could do the same here on Sunday. He starts eighth, and was tenth-fastest in Happy Hour.
My “outside chance” picks that ended up on the cutting-room floor include Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Tony Stewart, along with the aforementioned Matt Kenseth. Keselowski, for the challenges above that he’ll have to overcome. Kyle, despite his start in third and being fourth-fastest in final practice, has been inconsistent here and has not had very good luck over the last few weeks’ races. Stewart, despite being the defending champion of this race and his three overall wins here, doesn’t have a very fast car (ran 22nd in final practice). One bad thing about MVS: since it’s such a short track, those in the tail of the field begin to get lapped by the leaders early in the race. You’ll either see some odd pit strategies for the “tail-end Charlies” or you’ll see them up against a serious fight to gain ground, particularly with the very fast #48 car.
Final Thoughts: I’m going to keep this week’s column slightly shorter, as about the biggest news to hit the NASCAR world Sunday’s weather forecast for the Kansas Speedway was Dale Jr’s return to racing. And the biggest “tech” issues at MVS involve the relatively flat track at only 14 degrees of banking with the associated brake heating issues. So I’ll hope that Mother Nature just keeps trucking northbound and spares the mid-Atlantic region of significant damage, and be ready to watch a good race Sunday. MVS does have four jet dryers, so it would only take about 90 minutes to dry off the racing surface should it rain. But it will give race-goers the opportunity to put away plenty of the famous Jesse Jones Martinsville hot dogs, and reach for the Tums later on in the evening. Probably fitting that Tums sponsors its race here. So be ready for all the action, whether at the track, on TV from ESPN, your local MRN affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90). And follow me on Twitter (@speedglutton) for my normal race analysis, updates, and my occasional rant.
Copyright © sports-glutton.com, 2010-2012. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from sports-glutton.com is strictly prohibited.