Eighteen races have passed since Kyle Busch last won a race, but the flat half-mile layout at Martinsville Speedway might be exactly what the Las Vegan needs to get a jump start in the Round of 8 with a win and get an automatic bid into the Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17.
Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville is the first of three races in the Round of 8 which will conclude with races at Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway in Phoenix after which half of the eight contenders will be chopped with the Final 4 having a one-race shootout — best finish wins (no points carried over).
Busch comes into this round with the most points (4,042) which is why the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted him as the 3-1 favorite to win his second Cup Championship despite his drought in the win column. He won four races through the first 14 races, but his June 2 win at Pocono was his last.
Another reason Busch has been posted as the favorite is because of how good he is at all three tracks in the Round of 8 beginning with Martinsville, a place he’s so good at that the SuperBook posted him as the 5-2 favorite to win this week. All he’s done there is finish in the top-five in his last eight starts, including wins in 2016 and 2017. In 28 career Martinsville starts, he has 16 top-fives and has led 1,424 laps.
If Busch doesn’t get the automatic berth this week with a win, he’s pretty good at Texas, too — three wins in his last 12 starts. And then there’s Phoenix, a place he led a race-high 177 laps in the March race which was the first race of the season using the new race package with taller spoilers and engines producing 750 horsepower. He’d go on to win at Bristol with the package a month later. Sunday’s race will be the 13th race using the package this season which has been used on the tracks 1-mile or shorter and road courses.
If you’re looking for the top candidate to stop Busch from winning the title, we may as well look at his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. (4,042 season points) and Denny Hamlin (4,037). When including Erik Jones Darlington win, the four JGR drivers have combined to win 16 of the 32 races this season. The next three races are good tracks for Truex (7-2 to win title) and Hamlin (4-1) to advance by either winning one of three or out-pointing the others.
Hamlin, who started the season at 25-1 odds to his first Cup Championship, is the driver to most closely rival Busch in the Round of 8. The Virginian is a five-time winner at Martinsville and he won at the first Texas race in March using the race package with aero ducts and 550 horsepower, the same package he won with at Kansas last week for his fifth win of the season. His 17-top-fives are most in the series, two more than the next best (Busch). Two of the three races in this round will be using the 550 HP package and no one has been more consistent with it than Hamlin with 10 top-fives in 12 starts.
Hamlin gets some home cooking this weekend on a Martinsville layout he’s been racing at since he was a kid. He knows his way around it and knows how to get out front, leading a lap in 20 of his last 25 starts there. His 9.5 average finish and 1,536 laps led are second best to only Jimmie Johnson among active drivers. The SuperBook has him listed as the second-choice to win at 9-2 odds.
By the way, Johnson won his ninth race at Martinsville in 2016 but hasn’t cracked the top-10 in his last five there which is why the SuperBook has him listed at 40-1 odds to win. He hasn’t won anywhere since 2017.
Looking back at the March Martinsville race, the second race using this week’s race package, the first thing to notice is the 446 laps led by the winner, Brad Keselowski. Chase Elliott would lead 49 laps and finish second. There are only 500 laps in the race if that shows some example of crazy one-sided dominance. But I don’t remember being bored watching the race. In fact, I remember being quite entertained with all battles and passing going on behind Keselowski. Busch would finish third, Ryan Blaney fourth and Hamlin fifth.
Keselowski got chopped from the Playoffs last week so his only goal now is to win and if he brings the same set-up from March the 7-1 odds on him might be someone to throw in any wagering strategy.