Hot engines, hot brakes and hot tempers. You can expect all of these to make an appearance this weekend as NASCAR moves from the longest track on the schedule to the shortest. You thought Talladega was a wildcard? Martinsville is just as crazy.
Superman is back at the top of the charts but Matt Kenseth isn't far behind. Hold on tight because this week could shake things up more than last.
Here's how the Chasers stack up at the "paper clip."
1. Jimmie Johnson
by: Carol D’Agostino
The No. 48 team comes into this week’s race in an enviable and familiar position – one that is more than a bit intimidating for the No. 20 team, who lost the top spot after Talladega. Now with only four races left in the Chase Jimmie Johnson has a chance to pull away from Matt Kenseth, who has four victories at the four remaining tracks, none of them at Martinsville. Johnson has a remarkable 14 career victories at the four remaining tracks.
The five-time champion has a remarkable average finish of 5.3 in 23 starts at Martinsville. When Chad Knaus and the team have the No. 48 car hooked up it literally appears to glide at the storied Martinsville Speedway. Their results have been nearly perfect, at least for the last three starts there – both races in 2013 and this spring when Jimmie Johnson took the white flag as the winner.
Last spring Jimmie Johnson thought his eight wins at Martinsville was great, but can he make it nine?
Johnson's Martinsville statistics from the last five years include one pole, two wins, five top fives and five top 10s.
2. Matt Kenseth (-4)
by: Lacy Keyser
Matt Kenseth had been the driver on top since the start of the Chase. But finishing 20th in Talladega dropped him to second in the standings. Now Kenseth is hungrier than ever to claim that top spot back from Jimmie Johnson.
This weekend we're short track racing at Martinsville. Back in the spring Kenseth led 96 laps, but finished 14th. He has three top fives, as well as eight top 10s at Martinsville. Kenneth’s stats and finishes aren't the best, but that doesn't mean you count him out. Kenseth has been on fire since he started racing for Joe Gibbs, and we should see that fire this weekend as he tries to take the top spot back from Johnson.
3. Kyle Busch (-26)
by: Stacey Owens
In this final weekend before Halloween, Kyle Busch and the No. 18 M&Ms Halloween team are looking for treats, not tricks. In 17 starts, Busch has failed to win. He carries eight top fives and nine top 10s into Martinsville, including a second place finish last fall. He ran up front before placing fifth at the 0.526-mile oval earlier this spring but heads to the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 this weekend still looking to improve his 16.1 average finish at the "paper clip.”
Busch likes his chances in Martinsville where he’s continued to improve since being paired with crew chief, Dave Rogers. When asked whether he thought he might finally visit Victory Lane this weekend, Busch responded, “I certainly hope so. We were so close last fall and right on Jimmie’s bumper for the win… I’ve led a bunch of laps there, but we just haven’t been able to hold it for the end of the 500 laps. It’s certainly a race track where you can be leading the race and think you’ve got a shot to win the thing in the last 30 laps, and then get beat on from behind and moved out of the way. For us, it’s been a challenge, but we’re getting better at it and learning some more as we go along.”
If his Martinsville education has paid off, Busch will be looking to close the gap between himself and current points leader, Jimmie Johnson, who knows a thing or two about winning at the short track. Busch thinks his team is close to a win at Martinsville.
“I’d like to think we’re really close. We’ve been good there — especially the last couple of races there we’ve been really good. It’s a tough race track, and anytime you come in the pits and make an adjustment on your car, you certainly hope it goes the right way, or you make enough of it, or you don’t make too much of an adjustment.”
4. Kevin Harvick (-26)
by: Katy Lindamood
Kevin Harvick’s tenure at Richard Childress Racing will be over in four weeks. With that in mind, it’s time for the man nicknamed “The Closer” to make his final push toward the title. Time to give those who have followed for the No. 29 for over a decade something to cheer about. It is Harvick’s time to shine.
Martinsville has the tendency to create drama, and in April she took Harvick’s chances for a win away when his engine blew up with just 27 laps left. His day can’t end the same if he wants a chance to battle Kenseth and Johnson in the final three weeks.
Harvick’s record on the “paper clip” is average at best. In 24 starts he has one win, three top fives, and 10 top 10s. His average finish of 16.6 is fourth worst of the Chase drivers
"They are completely different styles of racing, but you can still get caught up in someone else's mess really quick. No matter where you're running,” said Harvick about going from the longest track on the schedule to the shortest. “If you're the leader and you come up on lap traffic, they want to stay on the lead lap and they will usually become more aggressive as they start pushing their way through the cars ahead of them. Martinsville (Speedway) is much like Talladega (Superspeedway) in the sense that you can get caught up in someone's mess, and it's just part of the game that you have to deal with."
5. Jeff Gordon (-34)
by: Beth Reinke
Jeff Gordon may drive the No. 24, but when it comes to Martinsville, it’s all about the number seven. In 41 career Sprint Cup starts at the track, Gordon has seven wins, seven poles and an average finish of – you guessed it – seventh. Even his average starting position is seven-ish at 7.195.
On the down side, of his seven trips to Victory Lane to pick up a grandfather clock, only one occurred during the Chase. That Chase win came in 2005 when he swept both races. Gordon is fond of the short track and feels comfortable behind the wheel there, but it wasn’t always that way.
"It took me a while to figure out how to get around here,” Gordon said. “During a test early in my career we were just doing lap after lap after lap and finally it just clicked for me. We started having success after that. With all the experience and success that we've had here, that can carry over from race to race and even season to season. Because of that, we always seem to enter a Martinsville race weekend with confidence."
Gordon has been amazingly fortunate at the 0.526-mile track in yet another way: he has zero DNFs. Remarkably, he has finished in the top five at Martinsville in 63 percent of his starts and in the top 10 in 80 percent of his races – that’s 26 top fives and 33 top 10s.
His last two finishes at Martinsville were seventh last fall and third this spring. Will Gordon rack up another “lucky seven” statistic by winning Chase race #7 this season? With his confidence, comfort level and stacked stats, the chances are pretty good.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-52)
by: Rebecca Kivak
If there’s one track that’s considered “the one that got away” for Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s Martinsville Speedway. He’s come oh-so-close to winning at the 0.526-mile speedway numerous times, but the coveted win has eluded him. This weekend gives Earnhardt Jr. another chance to conquer the short track and continue his rise in the championship standings.
In 27 starts, the driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet has amassed 10 top fives, including a pair of runner-up finishes, 14 top 10s and an average finish of 13.8 at Martinsville. It may surprise you to learn that Earnhardt Jr. has led 868 laps here - the most he’s led at any track, including Talladega. His 10 top-five finishes at Martinsville match his personal best at a track (10 top fives at Daytona and Talladega).
Earnhardt Jr. finished 24th at Martinsville in the spring and 21st a year ago. He’ll need to improve on that to continue his march in the point standings. After his second-place finish last weekend at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. jumped an impressive three spots to sixth place, 52 points behind points leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt Jr. has past success at Martinsville and momentum from Talladega on his side. He’s hoping it will be enough to finally add the Virginia short track to his win column.
7. Greg Biffle (-53)
by: Stephanie Stuart
Greg Biffle knows it's going to take a lot to win the Sprint Cup title this year. A 16th place at Talladega last weekend was not what he was looking for. As the Chase heads to Martinsville this weekend, Biffle hopes to rebound at a track known to make or break many.
Currently, Biffle sits in seventh place in the standings, 53 points out of the lead. He has a lot of ground to make up and limited time to do it. This week's race at paper clip-shaped Martinsville marks the seventh race in the hunt for the title, meaning after this, there are only three races left to catch current points leader Jimmie Johnson. Unfortunately, Martinsville has not been kind to Biffle. In 21 starts at the half-mile track, he has just four top-10 finishes, and has only led 21 laps. His average finish is 20.8.
Don't tell Biffle he is out of it yet though.
"Martinsville hasn't been my strongest track, but we have definitely gotten much stronger there," said Biffle earlier this week. "We've finished in the top-10 in our last two starts, and learned some interesting stuff testing there a few weeks ago. I'm looking for a strong run to head into the final few races."
While many may have already counted the No. 16 out of the title hunt, Biffle is not ready to call it quits just yet. He knows it's going to take a big shift in momentum to get him to the top, but he's willing to do the work to get him there.
8. Clint Bowyer (-57)
by: Katy Lindamood
The 2013 Chase has been the Matt and Jimmie show. Aside from the controversy that started in Richmond, few other drivers have had time in the spotlight over the course of the last seven weeks. This weekend might be Clint Bowyer’s best shot to overcome the negative publicity he’s been encapsulated by. Maybe this is the weekend we see the return of happy-go-lucky Bowyer.
In April, Bowyer earned his career best finish at Martinsville, coming home with a second-place finish behind Jimmie Johnson.
In 15 races Bowyer has three top fives and nine top 10s along with an average finish of 13.2, which is third highest among Chase drivers.
In regards to his eighth place standing in the points Bowyer said, “It’s not over til it’s over, but from where we are sitting in points it would take a lot of unbelievably good luck for us and unbelievably bad luck for a lot of real good drivers that don’t often have bad luck. We still have our goals to accomplish.”
9. Kurt Busch (-61)
by: Rebecca Kivak
Though Kurt Busch has one win at Martinsville Speedway, it’s been a tough track for the 2004 Sprint Cup champion.
The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet has two top fives, four top 10s and an average finish of 21.7 in 26 starts at the 0.526-mile short track. His last top-10 finish came in fall 2005 - meaning Busch has gone eight years without a top 10 here.
Busch’s last stop at Martinsville ended in a fiery wreck when his brake rotor malfunctioned, relegating him to a 37th-place finish in the spring. He finished 15th here a year ago.
Busch sits 61 markers behind points leader Jimmie Johnson in the championship standings. With four races to go in the Chase, Busch’s chances at winning a second title look bleak. But Busch is hoping his team’s recent test session at the short track will translate into a good finish, which would help him make up ground in the standings.
"The good news heading into this weekend's race is that our Furniture Row Racing team tested at Martinsville and we came away feeling pretty good about what we learned," Busch said. "Now it's a matter of compressing that data and applying it to our race setup in our Furniture Row Chevrolet."
10. Carl Edwards (-68)
by: Katy Lindamood
Carl Edwards’ win at Richmond in September was overshadowed by controversy and excitement over the Chase field. This weekend at Martinsville, the chassis that visited victory lane at RIR will return to the track sporting the colors of the Geek Squad.
Edwards is most likely out of contention for the title, barring some amazingly horrendous luck for the points leaders, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to add a grandfather clock to his collection of trophies.
In 18 starts at Martinsville, Edwards has no wins and an average finish of 16.1. He’s also earned one top five and five top 10s.
11. Ryan Newman (-72)
by: Stephanie Stuart
A ninth-place finish at the Chase's wildcard track got lots of fans a free Bloomin' Onion at Outback Steakhouse on Monday evening, but it didn't hoist Ryan Newman into the top 10 in the points standings. As the Chase marks four races to go this weekend in Martinsville, Newman sits 11th in the standings, 72 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
At this point, many have said the title will rest with either Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch. Don't tell that to Newman. He is ready to go racing at Martinsville, and make up as many points on the leader as he can. With one win and seven top fives in 23 starts, this just may be the place for him to begin his comeback.
"Martinsville is very much a finesse racetrack, from a banking standpoint, but also the acceleration part of it too," said Newman when asked about the half-mile track. "You can really chew your tires up on the concrete before you get to the asphalt getting back to the gas, and you have to get back to the gas, but how you do it can make a really big difference in how good your car is for a whole fuel run."
After winning at Martinsville in 2012, Newman knows his way around the tiny track. He's going to need that experience this weekend if he is going to make a gain on the Chase leaders.
12. Joey Logano (-75)
by: Stacey Owens
With no wins at Martinsville, Joey Logano and the No. 22 Penske Racing team will seek to capitalize on the single top five and two top-10 finishes at the southern Virginia short track. In nine starts at “The Paper Clip,” Logano averages a 16.1 finish and average running position of 17.8, which is 18th best among all drivers.
To date this season, Logano boasts a win, 10 top fives, 16 top 10s and two poles. As a result, he and the team have high expectations of themselves every time they hit the track.
“We do expect top-five finishes every race, but we haven’t been as consistent as we need to be, and that’s why we’re not contending to where we want to be right now. We’ve had runs that we’ve had that consistency where we can go six or seven races with straight top-10 finishes or top-five finishes, but then we have the next race is a total blow-up. We either crash or blow up or do something like that. We’ve just got to try to find a way to eliminate all the mistakes we can, and that feels like what the next step is for this 22 team right now.”
Is a grandfather clock in Logano’s immediate future? That would certainly be a treat for the young driver on this Halloween weekend.
13. Kasey Kahne (-101)
Martinsville stats for Kahne: 19 starts, zero wins, three top fives, four top 10s, average finish 19.8, four DNFs, 31 laps led.