While the rest of the American sports world figures out a coronavirus return-to-play game plan, NASCAR has shown the way with six races in three weeks. This week. they’ll be running two races again to make up for lost dates when the country was shut down.
The original 2020 schedule showed 36 Cup dates. Yet despite missing 11 weeks, NASCAR has every intention to give us 36 races. On Wednesday night, the Cup Series will be racing on the flat high-mile paperclip layout at Martinsville Speedway with drivers bumping and banging in the crowded bullring. It’s 500 laps and 1,000 turns under the lights, the first night race in Martinsville’s 70-year history spanning 142 races. No practices or qualifying, the teams have to find the perfect set-up right off the hauler and then adjust during the race.
On Sunday afternoon they’ll race on another paperclip layout. Except Homestead-Miami Speedway is a 1.5-mile high-banked layout which will be the fifth race of the young season on a 1.5-mile track. The Dixie Vodka 400 will be the eighth race using the race package with engines producing 550 horsepower and the 12th race overall.
Both of these races can be handicapped separately ahead of time and by themselves because the Martinsville results don’t affect what happens at Homestead in any way. The Martinsville race package uses the 750 horsepower package which has already been run on the shorter tracks like Phoenix and Bristol this season.
I’ll start with Homestead first, in part because it keeps this article on the shelf longer since the race is Sunday, and the other reason is that we have so much data to go off of with seven relevant races using this week’s package in the books with six different drivers winning.
Kevin Harvick’s win last week at Atlanta was his second win of the season after winning at Darlington in the first race back after the long layoff. While I group Homestead’s layout with the other 1.5-mile tracks, it’s the only one shaped like a paperclip while the others are D shaped ovals. It’s always produced different results from the other tracks, but their normal date over the years has been race No. 36 in November, the Championship Race with the eventual champion usually winning the race. The last six NASCAR Cup Series Champions have won at Homestead.
There have been only 21 Cup races at Homestead and only two active drivers — Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin — have two wins on the unique layout. But it’s Harvick who has been the best on it over his 19 starts with a 6.4 average finish that includes 11 top-fives and a 2014 win. His last 12 starts there have all been top-10 finishes and his last six have been finishes of fourth or better. This is the main reason he is the 5-1 favorite to win, coupled with two wins this season using this race package and top-10 finishes in all seven using it.
It’s bizarre that Harvick has just one win at Homestead. When looking at his career there, it shows that no matter what team or manufacturer or layout of the track — it used to be flat — Harvick is always the one to beat.
Martin Truex Jr. notched his first top-five finish of the season last week at Atlanta with his third place result and he has been better than Harvick in his last three Homestead races with runner-ups the last two seasons and his only win in his championship year of 2017. After seeing him lead a bunch of laps at Atlanta, Homestead might be the spot for him to join the winner’s circle.
Kyle Busch still doesn’t have a win in 2020 but he’s tied with Harvick for the most top-five finishes with six. His first 10 starts at Homestead were very ordinary with only one top-five finish, but his last five have been amazing with finishes of sixth or better, leading laps in all five, and his two wins to cap off championships in 2015 and 2019.
Another Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Hamlin, has also had lots of success at Homestead. He’s won the pole there the last three seasons, and four of the last five. His two wins there came in 2009 and 2013 and has averaged a 10th-place finish between his 15 starts. He’s had top-fives in his last two starts using this week’s race package, Busch, Truex, and Hamlin all finished in the top-five at Atlanta.
Hamlin will also be my top wager Wednesday night at Martinsville. The Virginian has been racing at Martinsville his entire racing career and he has compiled five Cup wins and two Truck Series wins. The last time he drove his car with 750 horsepower was at Bristol where he led a race-high 131 laps before being involved in a late dustup.