Jimmie Johnson among those with short-track savvy at Martinsville
For the second time in the past three race weeks, NASCAR visits a short track. In a bygone era when the series was dominated by courses less than a mile in length, there would be almost no benefit to comparing a driver’s record at Martinsville Speedway to that at Bristol Motor Speedway, but with only three short courses on the schedule, the nuanced difference between the high banks in Tennessee and the relatively flat paperclip turns in Virginia is marginal.
There are a special set of skills required to drive in heavy traffic and the smaller the track, the more these skills come into play. In the Cup series, drivers will not find any tighter confines than at Martinsville and that means that a perfect balance of aggression and patience comes into play. Drivers need to know when to push and when to give way, which makes this as much a battle of strategy as strength.
Fantasy power average
|7||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||13.45|
|10||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||14.25|
|12||Juan Pablo Montoya||15.73|
|13||Martin Truex Jr.||15.76|
The Power Average is the average finish, plus the number of laps spent in the lead, in the top five, and in the top 10 expressed as if they were finishing results for short-track races over the last three years.
To some extent, all short tracks require that same equilibrium, so fantasy players should study drivers’ records at Bristol and Richmond International Raceway. Because this track is so flat, their records at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway should be considered as well.
This week, you cannot tell the players without a program: Denny Hamlin suffered a back injury in the last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway and will miss as many as five races. Mark Martin will take his place in the No. 11 at Martinsville while Brian Vickers climbs into the No. 55. Beginning with Texas, Vickers will wheel the FedEx Toyota and race it until Hamlin returns.
Coming off a miserable week in California, Jimmie Johnson was probably happy to take a week off and regroup. He will be equally enthused to return to Martinsville because he has never struggled there. Two of his last four attempts ended outside the top 10, but both of those modest results require explanation. Johnson was stranded a lap off the pace in the spring 2011 race when he pitted under green before a caution waved; he got back on the lead lap late in the going, but only had time to climb to 11th. Last spring, he was wrecked on a late-race restart and finished 12th. Since 2004, however, all but two of his remaining 16 attempts ended in top-fives.
Brad Keselowski scored an equally disappointing finish at Auto Club, but he ran strong overall. Forced to the back of the pack to start the Auto Club 400 because of an engine change and then once more during the race because of a pit road penalty, he passed a lot of cars until he ran out of steam at the end. He does not have the same long history of success at Martinsville as Johnson, but he does have one amazing streak to his credit. On the short, flat tracks of Martinsville, Richmond, Phoenix, and New Hampshire, he enters the weekend with a nine-race streak of top-10s.
Clint Bowyer used a little fuel mileage and a lot of horsepower to win the Capital City 400 last fall on another short track in Richmond. That is part of a current seven-race streak of top-10s that includes a pair of fifths in last fall’s Martinsville race and again at Bristol this spring. His late-race banzai move on the leaders in the spring Martinsville event will be shown several times in pre-race coverage; he could find it difficult to pass Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a result, but he should be a solid pick to finish among the top 10.
During the course of his career, short tracks have not been Vickers’ strongest track type, but when he was given the opportunity to run on those tracks during weeks when the veteran Martin took time off from the series, he capitalized. The spring Martinsville race was his worst outing last year when he finished 18th, but he swept the top 10 in Bristol’s two races and finished eighth in the Tums Fast Relief 500. He is only a dark horse this week, however, because even though he finished eighth two weeks ago in the Food City 500, he did not spend much time with the leaders in that event.
Most of the drivers in the field cut their teeth on short tracks, so Aric Almirola’s eighth-place finish in last year’s Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville was not entirely surprising. Competition at the Cup level is so intense, however, that his fourth-place finish in the fall event was impressive not only because it completed a sweep of the top 10 on this track, but also because it meant that he might have contended for the win with a few changes to the car. Even if he misses the top 10 this week, Almirola should be a good value in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game with his modest salary hit. He has finished 16th or better in eight of his last nine attempts on a variety of tracks dating back to last year’s Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville.
Joey Logano has been running strong everywhere this season, but he has suffered through a series of misfortunes. That intensified his frustration when he was spun out of Hamlin’s way at Bristol and it was a contributory factor in why he raced the No. 11 so hard in the final laps of the Auto Club 400. The conflict that ultimately sidelined Hamlin for as many as five races brings negative attention to Logano when he needs it least and at a track that has not been overly kind in the past. Logano’s best Martinsville finish in the past two years was a 13th scored in spring 2011. Controversy could galvanize the racer and make him a better value than the numbers suggest, but that is not a foregone conclusion and players may wish to take a wait-and-see approach.
It is inevitable that Tony Stewart will turn his season around and fantasy owners who catch him at the right time can ride that wave. ‘Smoke’ won the fall 2011 Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville and he finished seventh last spring, but four of his last six attempts on this track ended in results of 24th or worse, which makes this a dangerous place to race without any momentum on his side.