In the last couple of decades, Martinsville has taken a back seat to Bristol because the higher banked Bristol produced more excitement.
Although each track is essentially the same half-mile in distance, drivers at Martinsville go nearly 30 mph slower. But over the last two seasons a massive change of opinion has shifted with fans all over the country where Martinsville has become the most attractive brand of short track racing in NASCAR.
The main culprit in the perception shift is action, with drivers getting angry with one another and Bristol doesn’t have that anymore ever since they changed the surface in 2007 making it a multi-grooved track.
At Martinsville, the fastest way around the track is on the bottom and drivers fight like hungry wolves to get there, and stay there. If a slower driver doesn’t want to do the gentlemanly thing and let the faster one pass, NASCAR justice occurs in an instant with the slower driver getting bumped out of the way against his wishes.
This is where the action happens and the fun begins, and it‘s something that only Martinsville provides making it the most unique track on the circuit.
Over the last decade, only a select few drivers have been able to master it. The combination of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have won 14 of the last 18 Martinsville races. Just by playing the odds, it’s likely that one of them will win again this week.
However, we do have last season to account for where neither of the Martinsville Big-3 won. Kevin Harvick won for the first time in the spring and Tony Stewart won in the fall during his incredible Chase run. For Harvick, he’s on a run of finishing fourth or better in his last three starts there. For Stewart, it broke a string of poor finishes there and gave him his second career win on the track.
The driver to key on this week out of all of them has to be Hamlin. It would take a lot of work for the native Virginian not to win this race because of how dialed in this team is. He’s got a Phoenix win under his belt already this season and probably could have won at California last week had it not been for rain because he had the best car on the track.
Beyond all of Hamlin’s past exploits at Martinsville that has seen him capture four wins with an average finish of 6.5, we also have to give him the nod because of new crew chief Darian Grubb. Not only did Grubb set up cars for Johnson’s six Martinsville wins, but he also helped Stewart get there last year. The combination of Hamlin’s natural skills here and Grubb setting up the car will be a formidable opponent for every driver on Sunday.
The one outsider who could break his winless streak of 134 races is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s finished seventh or better in seven of his last 10 Martinsville starts that includes two runner-up finishes, the last coming in 2011. He’s never won at Martinsville, but he’s been running very well this season which should give the team some momentum coming in.
This race ultimately runs through Hamlin and if looking to play anyone else, it’s with the hope that something either happens to Hamlin’s car or the pit crew makes an error late in the race. There is just too much in Hamlin’s favor this week.