Kyle Larson continued his incredible run on Sunday at Fontana with a win following three consecutive second-place finishes and is now listed by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook as the 6-to-1 co-favorite with four other drivers to win NASCAR’s Cup Series Championship. It’s clear at this early juncture Larson and Martin Truex Jr. have the new low downforce package figured out the most on the tracks where it makes the biggest impact.
Three of the five races so far have been tracks where the package means everything and there are still nine more races on 1.5-mile tracks and two more at Michigan’s 2-mile layout. Joe Gibbs Racing’s new Toyota Camry body design may have something to do with the team’s sluggish start after dominating these tracks the past two seasons. However, Truex, who is 8-to-1 to win the title, is using Gibbs equipment and doesn’t seem to have the same problems as his four defacto teammates.
This weekend at Martinsville, we can clear the slate on the data accumulated between races at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana. The low downforce package will have little effect on the outcome on the flat half-mile layout. This track usually has the same group of guys winning on it twice a year. When looking back the past 14 years of Martinsville results, four drivers combined to win 22 of the 28 races.
However, two of those four drivers have retired in the past two seasons. Jeff Gordon had nine wins all-time there while Tony Stewart had three, which leaves Jimmie Johnson (nine wins) and Denny Hamlin (five wins) as the lone Martinsville dominators. The door is left open for some new blood to jump into the mix.
Just who might those drivers be? Larson finished third in this race last season and you have to consider him just because of current form, but the style of tough hard-nosed racing doesn’t fit his profile. Last year’s third-place was his only top-10 finish in six starts that he’s averaged a 22nd-place average.
We can’t really call 2015 Cup Champion Kyle Busch “new blood,” he’s only been able to capture one win in 23 starts because of Hamlin, Gordon and Johnson hogging all the grandfather clock trophies. He won this race last season and it was sandwiched around two fifth-place finishes. His upbringing in car racing was right here in Las Vegas at the Bull Ring and saw him dominate like the LVMS short track has never seen. This should typically be his best type of track.
It took Dale Earnhardt Jr. 30 starts to finally win his first race at Martinsville in the fall of 2014, but he’s always ran well there with a 12.9 average finish in 33 starts. Brad Keselowski has four top-fives in 14 starts, but no wins with a 13.7 average finish. He’s got the mentality and temperament to be good here, but it hasn’t happened yet. His teammate Joey Logano had a Martinsville win in hand in the fall of 2015, but a late payback hit while leading by a vengeful Matt Kenseth halted it from happening. Still, Logano has averaged a 14.3 finish in 16 starts with a best of second-place in 2010.
I’m sticking with the meat and potatoes here with Hamlin and Johnson until I see someone else step up. Johnson won the fall race season and is probably really looking forward to coming here after a sluggish start as defending Cup Champion. Hamlin hails from Virginia and it’s the two races he circles on his calendar each year. He comes in knowing he’s going to win each time out and is the best at entering and exiting the tight turns at maximum speed. He last won in 2015 and finished third in the fall last season.