Man, times have changed. It used to be that races on Martinsville Speedway’s flat half-mile layout was an equalizer for drivers where the best equipment didn’t always win like happens at most other tracks. It was all about the driver and who could stick the car around the 1,000 turns the best while keeping their brakes fresh.
From a betting standpoint, it opened up all kinds of awesome possibilities. For a brief stretch, we witnessed winning payouts with Bobby Hamilton at 25-to-1, Ricky Rudd at 30-to-1, John Andretti at 45-to-1 and Ricky Craven and 40-to-1. But since then, it’s been basically three drivers dominating, one of which is eight-time winner Jimmie Johnson who comes in as the 9-to-2 favorite to win Sunday’s STP 500.
The other dominator is Denny Hamlin, who loves flat tracks, and the other one over the past two decades is nine-time winner Jeff Gordon who is now retired. With Gordon now out of the mix – he won the last race there in November, who is going to be the next driver to step up and take control? Will it be Johnson grabbing his ninth Grandfather clock (the Martinsville trophy) and first since 2013, Hamlin winning in his home state again, or someone else?
Hamlin won this race last spring and has led 1,315 laps over his 20 career starts. His eighth-place average finish is second-best to Johnson’s 7.4 average. Johnson’s 2,747 laps led are the most among active drivers. They are head and shoulders above the rest of the field, but last fall we saw a new driver step up and show he has what it takes to get up front and lead some laps. He also learned a hard lesson.
Joey Logano was on his way to his first career Martinsville win and it was the first race of the eliminator round of the Chase. A win would have secured Logano a spot in the Sprint Cup title round at Homestead. He had already won three races in the Chase and looked to be unstoppable up to that point. After 459 of 500 laps, Logano was leading – he led a race-high nine times for 207 laps on the day, but he had a big target on his back from an incident a few weeks prior at Kansas where Matt Kenseth was still irritated about a punt from Logano that essentially ruined his championship hopes. When Kenseth, down several laps, saw the opportunity to derail Logano, he kamikazied his car right into the leader. It was sensational, controversial and jaw-dropping all at the same time. Logano would finish 37th and he wouldn’t be one of the final four at Homestead. Kenseth was suspended for the next two races.
But there was enough evidence from that race that Logano had what it takes to get up there in the upper-echelon of drivers at Martinsville with Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin. This week he’s the 6-to-1 co-second choice with Hamlin.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. went 29 races without winning at Martinsville until winning in the fall of 2014. He’s finished fourth or better in three of his past four starts. Kenseth has never won at Martinsville in 32 career starts, but has finished sixth or better in four of his past five starts.
With Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin hogging all the Martinsville wins, there’s only a couple of other current drivers that have actually won there. Kurt Busch has won twice in 31 starts and then Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman each have one. And that’s it. No other active driver has claimed a win, which is the most lopsided type of dominating trend we have in the series today.
I’m expecting Logano to be strong once again this week, but I’m going to side with Hamlin again. I’d love to pick a long shot like Ricky Rudd back in 1998, but that era appears to be over. Look for much of the same to occur, which leads right back to Hamlin.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].