With four races remaining in the Chase, this week at Martinsville will be likely be when we pinpoint where the eventual 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion made his move to becoming champion.
While we expect Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin to run well because of their historical greatness on the flat half-mile paper clip short track, the real questions surround current points leader Brad Keselowski, who has been leading the Chase since winning at Chicago six weeks ago to kick off NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
Keselowski has a seven-point lead with four to go, but he’s going against the best-of-the-best at Martinsville, a track where he’s averaged an okay 13.4 finish in five career races. However, it doesn’t come close to stacking up against what the two drivers chasing him have done.
Hamlin has four wins over his career at the track about three hours away from his Chesterfield, Va. hometown. Johnson is a six-time Martinsville winner who has won there in four of his five Championship seasons. Keselowski? Well, he had a career best ninth in the spring race.
With only a seven-point lead over Johnson and 20 over Hamlin, you can see why the tables might be turned a little. Still, he’s got only four races to go and by at least matching his career best could be neck and neck with Johnson with three left.
It may sound like we’re just assuming Johnson will run in the top-5, but it’s been about as solid of a bet as there has been in NASCAR over the past decade. Try 14 top-5 finishes over his last 18 races with his worst over that stretch being 12th this spring.
Hamlin has a lot of ground to make up and almost has to finish third or better, while leading some laps, to start erasing the 20-point deficit. We expect him to run well at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, tracks he won at over his career. His 13th-place performance at Kansas last week has to be a little concerning.
Granted, the new surface at Kansas had several teams scrambling to find the right mix, one that the Fords of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle obviously had an edge on throughout the testing and practices prior to the race. That race did give an indication Hamlin might not be as ahead of the game on the final two 1.5-mile races this season as we once thought. If the aero-package problems the Fords had trouble with at mid-season have truly been fixed, it eliminate chances to get maximum points on those two tracks, making 20 seem as far a deficit as 30.
For that very reason, Hamlin’s odds to win the Championship have been raised from the 7-to-4 favorite last week to 5-2 at the LVH. Johnson is the favorite at 7-5 and Keselowski right behind at 3-1.
If there was a case needed to be made on why the No. 48 is favored, look at what that team did at Kansas last week. After the rear of Johnson’s car looked like an accordion when losing control and hitting the wall, the crew used multiple pits stops under caution to bandage the car up as best they could.
Johnson still had almost half the race to go, but each ensuing caution, they got the car back into better shape. Any other team would have finished 30th or worse, but somehow, Johnson’s crew got themselves ninth, which is why they are the best in the business and a variable that has to be accounted for as the top candidate to win his sixth Championship.
The last two Martinsville races have been won by Stewart-Haas cars, last fall by Tony Stewart and this spring by Ryan Newman. Kevin Harvick won last spring and before that, Hamlin had won three straight. And prior to that, Johnson had won five of six races.
If we go a little deeper, Jeff Gordon had won four of seven races prior to Johnson’s run. As you can see, the winner’s circle has been pretty limited with invitations, but the cycles seem to go in spurts with whoever has the hot hand lately keeping it going for a few seasons.
We also welcome back Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a two week layoff due to a concussion. He has been one of the more consistent drivers at Martinsville the last four races finishing seventh or better. He was third in the spring.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Contact Micah at [email protected].