Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IOctober 21, 2013

Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville

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    Martinsville Speedway is the seventh race in the Chase.
    Martinsville Speedway is the seventh race in the Chase.Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    One week after the Sprint Cup Series held a Chase race at the sport's longest speedway, they follow up with one at the shortest track on the circuit.

    The stars of NASCAR's top series will race at Martinsville Speedway for the second time this year. The first time they were here, back in early April, Jimmie Johnson started on the pole and dominated the race.

    Johnson led 346 laps that day en route to his eighth career win at the half-mile paperclip-shaped race track.

    For the first time this postseason, a driver other than Matt Kenseth has assumed the championship lead. Following a 13th-place finish at Talladega, Johnson enters Martinsville at the top of the standings with a four-point lead.

    Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon all come into this event with their championship hopes still intact as they are all within 34 points of Johnson. 

    So who are the primary drivers to watch, and what are the stories making headlines as the series enters the seventh race of the 2013 Chase for the Championship? Join us as we break it all down and get you set for the beating and banging that is Martinsville Speedway.

Martinsville Race Information

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    Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    The seventh race of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship takes place at Martinsville Speedway. Here are all of the important details.

    Race: Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500

    Track: Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval)

    Distance: 500 laps to make 263 miles

    Green Flag: Sunday, Oct. 27, 1:30 p.m. ET

    TV: ESPN

    Defending Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson

    First Race: September 25, 1949 (won by Red Byron)

Breaking Down Martinsville Speedway

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    Martinsville is the shortest track in the Sprint Cup Series.
    Martinsville is the shortest track in the Sprint Cup Series.Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Martinsville Speedway is the shortest venue on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The half-mile track is known for its long straightaways and very tight corners. The track earned its nickname "the paperclip" due to its unique shape.

    The Sprint Cup Series has been racing at Martinsville since the series began in 1949. Red Byron, the winner of the first series championship, was the inaugural race winner at the short track.

    Beginning in 1950, two races have been run at the speedway annually. Since the inception of the Chase format in 2004, Martinsville has hosted a playoff event each year, making it the only track under one mile in length to host a postseason race.

    Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers with eight wins at this track. Jeff Gordon is next with seven victories while Denny Hamlin enters this event with four career wins here. Between Johnson and Hamlin, they have combined to win 11 of the last 14 races at Martinsville.

    Track position is key at Martinsville. Ten of the last 12 race winners at the Virginia-based track started the day inside the top 10, and not since this race in 2002 has the eventual winner started worse than 20th.

    Seven times since 2000, the race winner was also the pole sitter for the event.

Top Storylines at Martinsville

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    Jimmie Johnson enters Martinsville as the points leader.
    Jimmie Johnson enters Martinsville as the points leader.John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson Takes Over Points Lead

    Jimmie Johnson led the most laps at Talladega and ended the day with a 13th-place finish. His result was seven places higher than Matt Kenseth, which gives Johnson the lead in the championship standings for the first time this postseason.

    Entering the seventh race of the 10-week playoff, Johnson holds just a four-point lead over Kenseth, with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon all still within reach of the two leaders.

    Johnson's charge to the top of the point standings marks the first time in this year's playoffs that Kenseth has entered a race without the championship lead. For Kenseth and the rest of the title contenders, this may be the worst possible race to see Johnson enter with a lead. He is an eight-time winner at Martinsville and has won the last two times the series has visited the famed track.

    Jamie McMurray Makes it Two in a Row for Non-Chasers

    One week after Brad Keselowski was victorious in Charlotte, Jamie McMurray scored the win in Talladega, making it two straight victories by drivers not eligible to win the series championship. With McMurray's win, 2013 becomes the fifth year in the Chase era in which non-Chase drivers won at least two playoff events.

    McMurray's Talladega win lacked the normal last-lap excitement that has become customary at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. After taking the lead with 14 laps remaining, McMurray held point until the checkered flag waved.

    As the field took the white flag it appeared that Dale Earnhardt Jr., running second at the time, was poised to make a move and steal the win. When Austin Dillon's car got turned around after slight contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., NASCAR waved the caution flag thus ending the race and eliminating any potential drama.

    Should a non-Chase driver win in Martinsville, it would mark the first time in series history that drivers not competing for the championship were victorious in three consecutive postseason races. 

The Top 5 Drivers in the Point Standings

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    Jimmie Johnson is the point leader for the first time in the postseason.
    Jimmie Johnson is the point leader for the first time in the postseason.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    For the first time in this year's playoffs, a driver other than Matt Kenseth is at the top of standings. Here is a detailed look at the top five drivers entering Martinsville.

    1. Jimmie Johnson: Jimmie Johnson's 13th-place finish at Talladega was good enough to earn him the championship lead. He sits four points ahead of his closest competitor, Matt Kenseth, and has to like his chances of extending his lead as the series stops at what has statistically been the best track of his career. Johnson is an eight-time Martinsville winner and has only finished outside the top 10 three times in 23 career starts at the half-mile track.

    2. Matt Kenseth: Early in the race at Talladega, Matt Kenseth was one of the cars to beat. He then lost the handle on his race car and had to settle for a 20th-place finish. The result saw him go from a four-point lead in the standings to a four-point deficit. It could not have come at a worse time for the 2003 champion. Kenseth has had minimal success at Martinsville, posting just eight top-10 finishes in 27 starts. He has never won at this track.

    3. Kyle Busch: Kyle Busch finished fifth at Talladega, bested by only one other Chase contender. That moved him from fifth to third in the standings, just 26 points out of the lead. Martinsville has been a mixed bag for Busch in his career. In 17 starts, he has nine top-10s but also has five finishes worse than 25th. For Busch's title hopes to remain alive, a good finish at Martinsville is a must.

    4. Kevin Harvick: Kevin Harvick posted a quiet 12th-place finish at Talladega. After spending most of the day riding around at the tail end of the field, he made his way toward the front and was able to score a finish that keeps his championship hopes alive. Harvick is a former Martinsville winner, having done so in the spring of 2011. 

    5. Jeff Gordon: Still searching for his first win of the year, Jeff Gordon enters Martinsville fifth in the standings, 34 points behind his teammate Johnson. Gordon is second among active drivers with seven Martinsville wins but has not won there since 2005. If he can find his way to Victory Lane for the first time this season, Gordon's hopes for a fifth series championship will remain intact.

Favorites at Martinsville

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    Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have won 11 of the last 14 Martinsville races.
    Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have won 11 of the last 14 Martinsville races.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

    Over the last seven years, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have been the two dominant drivers at Martinsville Speedway. Between the two, they have received 11 of the last 14 grandfather clocks given to the race winner. 

    While they are clearly the two favorites, here is a detailed look at five drivers who statistically speaking have the best chance of finding Victory Lane on Sunday.

    Jimmie Johnson

    Jimmie Johnson is an eight-time winner at the Sprint Cup Series' shortest track. Even if he does not win the race, you can count on him to finish inside the top 10. In 23 starts, Johnson has a mind-blowing 20 top-10 finishes. Other than his first trip to the speedway back in 2002 when he finished 35th, Johnson has never finished worse than 12th at Martinsville.

    Denny Hamlin

    The 2013 season has been disastrous for Denny Hamlin. He missed four races early in the season with a back injury and scored just five top-10 finishes in his 28 starts this year. If there is any track where Hamlin could turn things around, Martinsville is the one. He is a four-time winner at his home track and has 12 top-10s in 15 career starts. Only four times has Hamlin failed to lead laps at the half-mile facility.

    Jeff Gordon

    Jeff Gordon ranks second among active drivers with seven Martinsville victories. His most recent conquest of the paperclip was in this race back in 2005. In total, Gordon has 33 top-10s in 41 starts at this track. He is also a seven-time pole sitter here, which is four more than any other current driver. Gordon has finished inside the top 10 in 19 of the last 21 Martinsville races.

    Ryan Newman

    Ryan Newman was a winner at this track in last year's spring race. It was his first victory at Martinsville. Newman is a three-time pole sitter here and in total has posted 11 top-10 finishes in his 23 starts. Newman had more success earlier in his career than in recent trips to the track. In his last six races here, Newman has scored two top-10s but finished 20th or worse three times.

    Jamie McMurray

    The most-recent winner in Sprint Cup competition, Jamie McMurray enters Martinsville where he has had some past success. Though he has never won on the circuit's shortest track, McMurray finishes in the top 10 more than half of the time at this facility. In 21 career starts, he has amassed 11 finishes of 10th or better. Following his first win in the last 108 Sprint Cup races, McMurray enters Martinsville with plenty of momentum.

Martinsville Predictions

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    Jimmie Johnson is the clear favorite at Martinsville.
    Jimmie Johnson is the clear favorite at Martinsville.Mark Wilson/Getty Images

    With just four races remaining in the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season, none of the drivers still in championship contention can afford a mistake. While last weekend's race at Talladega was the biggest wild card of the postseason, this weekend's race in Martinsville may be the second-biggest wild card.

    This track provides 500 laps of white-knuckle racing, and with such tight quarters, the chances of a driver making contact with another driver is almost a guarantee.

    For someone like Jimmie Johnson, who has had a plethora of success at Martinsville, this race represents a golden opportunity to extend his points lead and enter the final three races with a little bit of breathing room. 

    For drivers like Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who have only had marginal success at this track, Sunday's race becomes all the more crucial. With so little time remaining in the season, a good finish is critical. While certainly not a must-win situation for either driver, the key for each of them is to keep the No. 48 car within sight all day long.

    With all of the success that Johnson has historically had at this track, it is hard to envision a situation in which he does not leave Martinsville still the points leader. 

    After failing to win in six straight trips to Martinsville from the fall of 2009 through the spring of 2012, Johnson has since won two in a row. There is no reason to think that he will not make it three in a row following Sunday's event.

    Expect the point lead to be double digits when the series leaves Martinsville.

    Martinsville Winner: Jimmie Johnson