Elite 8 hit Martinsville as first of three NASCAR races toward a Final Four

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NASCAR’s version of the playoffs have whittled 16 down to just eight after six races as they head this Sunday to Martinsville Speedway for a semifinals of sorts. The eight eligible drivers to win the Sprint Cup will have three races to impress the most before the championship field of four drivers is set for an all-or-nothing season finale Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The best way to advance for the eight drivers is to simply win one of the next three races, or else accumulate the most points. If there are three different Chase drivers to win each of the races, only one will advance on points. Two of the heavyweight contenders to win it all, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, both had engine failures at Talladega last week and have been eliminated.

Let’s take a look at the eight Sprint Cup contenders and how they might fare at Martinsville and then at Texas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Joey Logano: Should have nightmares recurring from last season when his championship hopes were dashed at Martinsville when Matt Kenseth repaid a debt and wrecked him while leading. Logano had won three straight races and looked like the favorite to win it all up until that point. His only win between the three tracks came at Texas. I don’t like him to advance.

Jimmie Johnson: No driver has more Chase wins than the six-time champ. This round also suits his likes well: eight wins at Martinsville, six at Texas and four at Phoenix. Look for his best chance at winning to happen at Texas just because the last race on a high-banked 1.5-mile track was Charlotte (Oct. 9) where he led 155 laps and won. I’ve got him advancing.

Kevin Harvick: The favorite to advance just because he’s won eight times at Phoenix, including six of the last eight. He’s never won at Texas and has a 2011 win at Martinsville. My best guess is he won’t advance.

Matt Kenseth: Martinsville has never been his strongest track (0 wins), but he was runner-up in 2013, sixth in both 2014 races and fourth last spring. He’s got the luxury of having great Gibbs set-ups there now, like Hamlin and Kyle. At Texas, he’s one of the elite with two wins and a 9.5 average finish in 27 starts. He won’t advance.

Carl Edwards: He’s never won at Martinsville in 24 starts, but does have three Texas wins and two Phoenix wins. In the March Phoenix race he led 65 laps, but was runner-up to Harvick. I believe his ultimate fate will come down to Phoenix and possibly needing a win to advance.

Denny Hamlin: A five-time winner at Martinsville, he’s won twice at Texas and also has a Phoenix win to his credit. With Martinsville being his best track (9.5 avg.) he has a great shot to advance right out of the gate with a win. I like that scenario to happen Sunday.

Kurt Busch: Only two drivers have a better average finish than his 11.7 this season. The 2004 champ has won at least once on all three of the upcoming tracks. My bet would be that the older Busch brother doesn’t make it.

Kyle Busch: All he did was lead 352 of the 500 laps in April for his first career win at Martinsville. He’s had 10 top-five finishes in 22 starts over his career. Last year’s champ also won the April 9 race at Texas, his second there, and has 10 top-fives in 21 starts. He’s also won at Phoenix. He’s a good bet to advance to the next round just because of his chances of winning at Martinsville and Texas again.

The big wild cards are Jeff Gordon and Truex, Gordon is back in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 this week and has nine wins at Martinsville, including last fall. Truex has led the most laps on 1.5-mile tracks this season and should be considered the favorite to win at Texas.

Twitter: @MicahRoberts7

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