Eight drivers remain, but only four will advance to race for glory.
This is part three of my preview of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Today, I preview the Eliminator Round, or as I like to call it, the “Wild West Round.” This is the round where only the best and the rugged survive to compete for the championship. The name of the game is winning.
For the eight drivers who escaped the carnage of Talladega, they must traverse from Southeast at Martinsville, to the plains of Texas and the wild west of Phoenix.
Let’s begin with the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at the tiny Virginia paperclip known simply as Martinsville.
Martinsville Speedway is a .526 mile (.847 km) short track in Ridgeway, Va. that’s basically shaped like a paperclip. It’s also been described as two mini drag strips with U-turns at the end. It’s straights are flat and the turns are just a mere 12* banked. It’s the only track we race at where the straights are asphalt, but the turns are concrete.
Martinsville has been a mainstay on the NASCAR circuit since the very beginning. It began its life as a dirt track and was paved over in 1956. By the 1970’s the combination of slick tires and high speeds were tearing up the asphalt turns. This lead to the concrete turns the track is known for today.
Martinsville is that old-skool type of race track that – while the sport continues to evolve – the racing remains the same. Eight-time Martinsville winner Jeff Gordon has said that of all the tracks he’s raced at over his 23 year career, Martinsville is the one track that’s changed the least. He added that the same setups he used over ten years ago at the track still work and the feel he has for it hasn’t changed. It’s like a bottle of fine wine: It’s as good as it was in 1949.
Of all the tracks NASCAR goes to every year, my absolute favorite hands down is Bristol Motor Speedway. But a very, Very, VERY close second is Martinsville Speedway. Along with the Daytona 500, a trip to Martinsville should be high on any fan’s bucket list.
The key to winning at Martinsville is rhythm. You must have the endless rhythm of when to hit the gas, when to hit the brakes and how long to hold the brakes before accelerating again. Oh, there’s also the matter of navigating lapped traffic and not pissing off other drivers. But don’t be afraid of using your car to move someone out of the groove. Martinsville is barely a one-groove race track. As Ken Squier once said, “If you finish the race with all the fenders intact, you weren’t racing Martinsville too well.” Martinsville is a track where aerodynamics means little to nothing. You can win at Martinsville in a car with the aerodynamics of a cinder block.
Finally, winning at Martinsville rewards you with what I consider the best trophy in all of racing: The Martinsville Grandfather Clock. That’s right. They give the race winner an actual grandfather clock. With eight in his possession, I can only imagine what it’s like when all of those go off in Jeff Gordon’s house.
I could go on about Martinsville, but we’d be here all night.
The proverbial favorite is Jeff Gordon. In 45 career starts at the paperclip, he’s amassed eight wins, 28 top-fives, 36 top-tens an average finish of 6.9, has led 3,744 laps and has never failed to finish a race at Martinsville. All of these stats are his best of any race track at which he’s raced. In 45 starts, he’s only finished outside of the top-ten nine times. That’s an average of 80%. The only track where he has a higher top-ten average is Kentucky where he’s got a 100% average and has never finished lower than tenth. Back in March, he was leading the race prior to the final caution period. He was busted for speeding on pit road and fell back to 23rd in the running order. In the final 34 laps, Gordon drove from 23rd to a ninth place finish. I have no doubt that he would’ve been up near the front had it not been for the penalty.
Of course, there are others who run well at Martinsville like Kevin Harvick. While the rate of success is nowhere near the level of Jeff Gordon’s, Harvick has a win, three top-fives and 13 top-tens in 28 starts. That doesn’t seem like much, but he was the dominant car in March leading 154 of the 500 laps. Grasping at straws perhaps, but nobody can match Gordon’s numbers at Martinsville.
The only driver who can match Jeff Gordon at Martinsville is teammate and protégée Jimmie “Kenneth” Johnson. In 27 starts at the paperclip, he’s amassed eight wins, 18 top-fives (66.67%), 22 top-tens (81.48%), an average finish of 7.3 and only once has he failed to finish a race at Martinsville. His top-five and top-ten averages are both higher than Gordon’s and only trails in average finish to his mentor. His last two trips to Martinsville, however, haven’t been kind to the driver of the No. 48 car. In March, he was a non-factor all race long because he couldn’t hit the handling of his car correctly.
When all is said and done in Ridgeway, Va., I believe it’ll be Jeff Gordon securing his ninth grandfather clock and punching his ticket to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Next, we break out our cowboy hat, hop on our horse and ride into the night to head for the Lone Star State for the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) quad-oval intermediate speedway located in Fort Worth, Texas. I’ve said on record in the past that this is my least favorite track on the schedule. I’ve just never seen a great race at Texas. It’s gotten to the point where I’m never disappointed with the races there because I my expectations for Texas are zero.
I’ll keep this one brief.
When the smoke settles, I believe it’ll be Jimmie Johnson – who’s been on a winning streak at Texas for a number of years now – who fires off the six-shooters in victory lane. Because I predicted he doesn’t make it past the contender round, this leaves just one spot to get into the championship race at Homestead via a win.
The Eliminator Round concludes with a trip to the desert to race the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Phoenix International Raceway is a one mile (1.6 km) speedway located in Avondale, Ariz. It’s pretty close to a short track without being a short track.
Phoenix is a track that can be either hit or miss in terms of a good race. One thing is for sure, it’s been quite nice to the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet. Kevin Harvick has seven wins in the Arizona Desert – five of them in the last six races – and is riding a four race win streak at the track. In his seven wins, he’s led ten laps, 252 laps, 15 laps, 70 laps, 224 laps, 264 laps and 224 laps. That’s a median average of 224 laps.
I’d be foolish to pick anyone but “Happy” Harvick to win in the Valley of the Sun and punch his ticket to Homestead.
I predict that joining Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick will be Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
These four drivers make for great stories should either of them be the champion. I’ll tell you what a title will mean to each and everyone of them tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I conclude my four-part preview of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by examining the four drivers I’ve predicted will race for the championship and who’ll ultimately etch his name in racing immortality.
Do you agree with my predictions? If you see the Eliminator Round playing out differently, leave your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading and enjoy your evening…PEACE!!!