News & Media


Fantasy Preview: Three stand out at Martinsville

March 28, 2012, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Last week was a sprint to the checkers from the drop of the green flag. Drivers and crews knew there was a massive rain cell on its way to the track and they were determined to make it to halfway before the asphalt was dampened. Not a single caution waved during the first 120 laps as the field cycled through three green-flag segments, which put a premium on green-flag speed and precision in the pits.

Perfection on pit road was a challenge under the circumstances. Regan Smith was the first driver to be nabbed for speeding while exiting the pits on Lap 33 and his pass-through penalty started a trend. Before the day was over, Jamie McMurray (missing a lug nut during a Lap 65 pit), Joey Logano (speeding on Lap 67), Bobby Labonte (speeding on Lap 68), Brad Keselowski (speeding on Lap 101), J.J. Yeley (speeding on Lap 103), and finally Jeff Gordon (removing equipment from the pits on Lap 107) were each penalized by NASCAR. It was ironic that penalties did more to shape the finishing order of the race than Mother Nature, who has a bad reputation for destroying fantasy rosters.

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Rain fell about two-thirds of the way through what was to be the fourth green-flag cycle of the day, which meant drivers were in their proper running order according to how well their cars handled. This race might have an asterisk describing it as rain-shortened, but the fastest driver won. With the exception of drivers such as Gordon and Keselowski, who had cars capable of finishing in the top 10, there were few surprises. In fact, rain saved one driver from a bad finish. Jimmie Johnson developed an engine problem during the only caution period and most likely would not have been able to restart the race if it had gone green.

More than one joker in the deck

There is more than one joker in NASCAR's deck. The short tracks have the potential to be a wild card every time cars take to the track. Two weeks ago at Bristol, an early race accident eliminated several strong contenders including Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose. Close side-by-side racing cut a tire on another top-five contender's car and sent Gordon spinning into the outside wall. The confines of Martinsville are tighter and the action is even more frenzied.

For all the beating and banging on this track, Martinsville is home to some of the most incredible streaks of all time and the drivers with the longest strings of top-fives will be this week's favorites. Johnson, Gordon and Denny Hamlin have been practically perfect on this track in the past decade and it is difficult to imagine them struggling on Sunday. Still, there are some pleasant surprises such as Matt Kenseth nearly cracking the top five in this race last year after struggling for two years and even Stewart's victory this past fall after scoring three consecutive 20-something results.

Fantasy owners should set the top of their roster by the numbers, but leave room for drivers who perform well in practice. The key to success this week could very well be flexibility.

The Favorites

There is no top favorite this week. The race will come down to track position in the closing laps and almost certainly will be contested among these three drivers: Johnson, Hamlin and Gordon. They have collectively been as close to perfect in the past decade as is humanly possible. Between them in 49 combined starts since the beginning of 2003, they have won 14 of 18 races, and recorded 38 top-fives and 45 top-10s. They have swept the top five eight times including this past fall when Johnson finished second behind the dark horse Stewart, Gordon was third, and Hamlin was fifth.

Both Johnson and Hamlin have some momentum on their side. After getting crashed at Daytona, Johnson has been on a mission to get back into the top 10 in points, which he did last week at Auto Club. And Hamlin dominated and won at Phoenix to prove he should once more be favored on minimally banked tracks.

That leaves Gordon as the biggest question mark this week. There has been little doubt about the speed under the hood of the No. 24 in 2012, but a series of unfortunate events has kept it from scoring a single top-five. A blown engine at Daytona, and accident at Bristol, and last week's mistake on pit road has the potential to sap the momentum from this team, but Gordon is too well experienced to allow that to happen. In fact, if he wins at Martinsville, it will be his determination that is the deciding factor.

Martinsville


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

The remainder of the field this week has to be considered dark horses simply because they do not have the same remarkable records as the terrific troika of favorites. This is why they run the races, however, because last year Kevin Harvick and Stewart stole the checkers away from their statistically dominant contenders. Harvick was particularly aggressive in the early races last year and after executing a high-speed bump-and-run on Johnson at Auto Club, he pounced on Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the closing laps at Martinsville and charged to the finish line. That victory is surrounded by top-fives in the fall 2010 and 2011 Martinsville races and makes him a good bet for a top-five finish again this week.

Earnhardt seems to have the same level of aggression in 2012 as Harvick did in 2011. On-track incidents with Mark Martin and Gordon so far this season demonstrates how badly he wants to contend for a top-10 position in the points so he can be included in the Chase. It's working out well for him and Martinsville is a track that rewards aggression. It has been so long since Junior's last victory that his next one will come as a surprise regardless of when it occurs. The No. 88 won't be as easy to pass this year as Harvick found it to be last spring and if Earnhardt doesn't make any mistakes in the pits, he could have the track position to battle for the win on Sunday.

Underdogs

As on many tracks, Kyle Busch is hit or miss at Martinsville. In the past four years, he has three top-five finishes but those are his only top-20s in eight starts. His next best result since the beginning of 2008 was a 22nd earned in spring 2010. Another stat worth considering is that last year's third is his only top-five in a spring race in four years, which suggests he is better in the Chase races on this track than early in the season. Busch is capable of earning a top-five, but when he misses that mark his average finish is only 28th, which could rob fantasy owners of valuable points.

Kenseth is another marquee driver who occasionally finds the right setup on short, flat tracks. At Martinsville, however, the upside to starting him is rarely very high. Kenseth finished second in the 2002 and has one more top-five as recently as 2007. Unfortunately, those are two of only seven top-10s on this track and he fails to finish on the lead lap at Martinsville in about one-third of his attempts.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Jimmie Johnson7.64 17.Matt Kenseth18.91 32.Ken Schrader31.94
3.Denny Hamlin8.27 18.Greg Biffle19.20 33.David Stremme32.23
4.Kyle Busch8.76 19.Kasey Kahne19.51 34.Brendan Gaughan34.24
5.Tony Stewart11.04 20.Brad Keselowski19.88 35.David Gilliland34.41
6.Ryan Newman11.07 21.Jamie McMurray19.94 36.Mike Bliss34.88
7.Kurt Busch12.49 22.Brian Vickers20.07 37.Travis Kvapil36.49
8.Jeff Burton12.94 23.Joey Logano20.73 38.J.J. Yeley36.71
9.Juan Pablo Montoya12.97 24.Marcos Ambrose22,64 39.Dave Blaney36.85
10.Clint Bowyer13.06 25.David Ragan26.45 40.Josh Wise37.13
11.Kevin Harvick13.25 26.Aric Almirola28.25 41.Landon Cassill37.14
12.Carl Edwards13.43 27.Casey Mears28.52 42.Scott Riggs37.77
13.Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.46 28.Paul Menard28.77 43.Michael McDowell38.66
14.Martin Truex Jr.17.69 29.Regan Smith28.79 44.Joe Nemechek39.07
15.A.J. Allmendinger18.06 30.Reed Sorenson29.81 

* Power Rankings: Martinsville