Top 5 and 5 to watch: Martinsville
By: By Bill Marx, Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
Here’s a look at the top five in points and five drivers to watch in Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500. All statistical references are for Sprint Cup races at Martinsville Speedway unless otherwise indicated. Driver rating is based on the past eight races at the track.
1. Jeff Gordon, 124.0 driver rating. Since winning four of six races from 2003 to 2005, Gordon has “cooled,” going winless in the past six races. Of course, “cool” for Gordon is sizzling for others. He finished in the top five in all six races, including second three times.
2. Kurt Busch, 79.9. Busch has an odd record at Martinsville. In 17 races, he has one win (2002) and four top 10s. Subpar for a driver with seven short-track wins. He also has seven finishes in the 30s, including his past three races. Last year he finished 33rd and 36th.
3. Clint Bowyer, 77.2. In six races, Bowyer has never led a lap, but in true Bowyer fashion he has quietly improved with each race. As a rookie in 2006, he finished 22nd and 23rd despite starting deep in the field both times. Two years ago, he improved to finishes of 11th and ninth, and last year he finished 10th and ninth. He also has qualified better with each race; last fall, he started fifth. Bottom line: Besides getting better with experience, Bowyer knows how to move up through the field. At Martinsville, that’s quite an achievement.
4. Kyle Busch, 90.6. Busch finished 38th and 29th last year, the latter coming during his disastrous Chase. On Sunday, we’re more likely to see the Busch who finished in the top 10 in four of his first six Martinsville races, including fourth twice in 2007.
5. Carl Edwards, 78.5. Edwards has never led at Martinsville, either, and he didn’t get his first top 10 until last year when he finished ninth and third. Martinsville and Watkins Glen are the only Cup tracks on which Edwards has yet to lead a lap.
5 to watch
6. Kasey Kahne, 77.2. Kahne also was sixth in points last year going into Martinsville. He finished 17th and began a slow slide out of the top 12. He returned midseason but failed to make the Chase and is at his highest point in the standings since last March. In 10 races at Martinsville, he has two top 10s, his last in October 2006.
7. Tony Stewart, 113.7. Stewart’s third-best driver rating is based on a three-race stretch (2005-06) in which he led 247 laps, 283 and 288 and finished first and second (and 26th). Stewart has two wins and 11 top 10s in 20 starts.
8. Denny Hamlin, 101.3. Hamlin won last year’s race and has a terrific record at Martinsville: six top 10s in seven starts. His only blemish is a DNF in 2006 (crash). Since the DNF, he has four top fives and a sixth-place finish. Driving well—and winning—at Martinsville and Richmond means a lot to Hamlin, a Virginia native.
9. Jimmie Johnson, 124.7. Is there any wonder Johnson has the best driver rating at Martinsville? He has won five of the past nine races, including four of the past five. Since finishing 36th in his first race (April 2002), he has 13 consecutive top-10 finishes, 10 in the top five.
19. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 102.4. Although winless at Martinsville, Junior has nine top 10s in 18 starts (eight top fives, including second last fall). Among active drivers, only Gordon, Johnson and Stewart have led more laps than Earnhardt’s 758. Since falling to 35th in points after Fontana, Earnhardt has moved up the standings each week. Based on his skill at Martinsville, he should be able to move closer to the top 12 on Sunday. He is 66 points behind 12th-place Kevin Harvick.