Round six of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship will be taking a very interesting turn this Sunday when it presents another round of short track racing at the Martinsville Speedway. Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500 could turn out to be a clash of the titans. The drivers first and second in the standings have personal stats from this race track that are nothing short of amazing. Adding to the weekend drama are the details of an unexpected, but not necessarily surprising, major driver change.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN
During the course of Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500 all Chase observers will be watching the performances of Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Johnson goes into the race with a 41 point advantage over Hamlin. Both drivers have outstanding performances at Martinsville in the past. Between them Johnson and Hamlin have won the last eight races there.
Johnson is a six time winner at Martinsville. He also has six other top five finishes. The last time Johnson finished outside of the top ten at Martinsville was during his rookie season back in 2002.
Hamlin is a three time winner at Martinsville. His hot streak at this race track includes winning the last two races there in a row and three of the last five events. If Hamlin is going to trim down Johnson’s points lead, or possibly reclaim the points lead, then Martinsville is best arena to get the job done although it may require some surprise situation such as Johnson having a bad race.
Kevin “Happy” Harvick is third in the Chase standings and 77 points away from the top. However Harvick may not be that happy about the Sprint Cup Series’ return to Martinsville this Sunday. His worst finish of the year, a 35th, came after the spring race there. Harvick has raced at Martinsville twice a year since the 2001 season without a top five finish. Harvick’s game plan for Sunday’s race is to score a top ten finish to keep Johnson and Hamlin within his sights. Harvick will be hedging his bet on next week’s restrictor plate race at Talladega an area that he excels at. Harvick probably also yearns for the old points system used prior to the creation of the Chase. Under the old school system he would be leading the standings with a 249 points lead over Johnson.
Jeff Gordon’s drive for five championship run is treading water and he needs to launch something spectacular and do it soon. He’s currently fourth in the Chase standings and 156 points out of first. The Martinsville Speedway could turn out to be a good launching pad for Gordon because he virtually owns the individual driver’s stats there. Gordon leads the active drivers list in Martinsville wins with seven. He also leads in top five finishes with 23, top ten finishes with 29, laps led at 2,888 and has won the pole position a series high seven times. The last time Gordon finished outside of the top five at Martinsville was back in 2004 when he finished ninth. He came very close to winning the race last March only to get beat by Hamlin during the final green-white-checker finish.
The other big story you will hearing a lot about this weekend concerns Richard Petty Motorsports’, (RPM), Wednesday night decision to release Kasey Kahne as the driver of their #9 Ford. This decision stemmed from last Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when Kahne suffered a hard crash due to failed brakes. Noting that it was the team’s third brake failure of the season, a normally easy going Kahne went ballistic over the radio making it clear that he’s had enough and he can’t wait to leave the team at the end of the season when his contract runs out. The team made repairs but Kahne declined to get back into the car. He later said he wasn’t feeling well following the crash. Driver J J Yeley finished the race for RPM.
Earlier this year Kahne announced that he was leaving RPM at the end of this season and had signed a contract to drive for Hendrick Motor Sports, (HMS). However, his new ride, currently occupied by driver Mark Martin, wasn’t going to become available until the start of the 2012 season. Team owner Rick Hendrick engineered a deal to have Kahne drive a Red Bull Racing Toyota during the 2011 season.
It now turns out that Kahne will be getting a head start on his 2011 ride. He is listed as the driver of the #83 Red Bull car at Martinsville and is expected to be in the car for the remainder of the current racing season. Meanwhile RPM announced that driver Aric Almirola will take over the wheel of their #9 Ford at Martinsville. In a sheer note or irony, Almirola was the driver of record for the #83 Red Bull ride at Martinsville.
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN
To know real surprise the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), has Denny Hamlin on top of their ratings list at 3 to 1 odds followed closely by Jimmie Johnson, 4 to 1, and Jeff Gordon at 6 to 1. Two time race winner Tony Stewart has been ranked at 10 to 1.
The middle tier of the WSE rankings shows Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch at 12 to 1 odds with Clint Bowyer at 18 to 1. At 20 to 1 is a quartet of drivers led by former race winners Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch along with Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano.
In the lower tier the WSE has Juan Pablo Montoya, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman ranked at 25 to 1, Greg Biffle at 30 to 1 while Martin Truex Jr and Matt Kenseth come in at 35 to 1. Completing this week’s ranking is a trio of drivers, at 40 to 1, featuring Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr and two time Martinsville winner Mark Martin.
Now for the disclaimer. NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage and condone the placing of wagers on their races. Instead you may want to consider spending your money getting a head start on Christmas shopping. Those NASCAR tree ornaments are highly recommended especially if you’re an unmarried man living alone.
THE TRACK BREAKDOWN
The Martinsville Speedway was opened in 1947 by Clay Earles and remains as one of the oldest, continually operated, race tracks in the country.
The facility began as a dirt track. The first sanctioned NASCAR race was held there in September of 1949 and was won by the legendary Red Byron.
The track was paved in 1955. Concrete overlays were placed in the turns in 1976.
The Martinsville Speedway is a .526 mile oval that is shaped like a paper clip. The track is practically as flat as a paper clip. There is only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and zero degrees on the straights. Those straight-aways are only 800 feet long which presents a physical challenge for the drivers. The speedway currently has seating for 61,000 fans.
The speedway’s pit road is also a challenge for the drivers. The pit stalls measure 14 feet wide by 28 feet long. The pit road speed is a very slow 30 MPH.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500 is 500 laps/263 miles around the Martinsville Speedway’s .526 mile oval.
The race has 48 entries vying for the 43 starting berths.
11 of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning these teams are not guaranteed a start in the race because they are currently outside of the top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speed to make the race.
Weather should not be an impact on the race. The Sunday forecast for the Martinsville-Virginia area calls for some partly cloudy conditions with daytime highs at 76 degrees.
Racing fans planning on watching the Tums Fast Relief 500 on television need to be aware that you will start with the ESPN2 network, at 12 pm eastern time, for the “NASCAR Countdown” show. Then, at 1 pm et, you will need to switch to the ESPN network for the actual race. The rebroadcast of the race will be on Monday morning, 2 am et, on ESPN2 and again on Wednesday, 12 pm et, on SPEED.