Preview: First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway

With six races over in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, the Round of 8 will begin with this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

 
The track located in Virginia is just .526 miles long, making it the smallest track in NASCAR. 40 of the world’s best stock car drivers will beat bumpers and trade paint this weekend at the track known for its constant action, high tempers, and of course, for its hot dogs.

 
Drivers will compete in the 500-lap race, broken into three stages ending each at laps 130, 260, and 500. The race is scheduled to air live at 3 p.m. on NBCSN, however, forecasts indicate that the race may be delayed or postponed due to rain. Luckily, Martinsville Speedway has a brand-new lighting system that would allow for night racing.

 
Defending First Data 500 winner and champion Jimmie Johnson is still in the playoffs, and could clinch a spot in the finale at Homestead with a win this weekend. In 31 starts, Johnson has 24 top-ten finishes, including nine wins. Hendrick Motorsports, the team which Johnson drives for, has won every fall playoff Martinsville race since 2012, winning with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

 
Of course, that makes the Hendrick cars of Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. favorites, but with playoff drivers fighting for a spot in the championship race, here’s who you can expect to run up front, and maybe even grab a famous Martinsville clock trophy:

CONTENDERS

Jimmie Johnson

One of the most dominant drivers at Martinsville, defending race winner and reigning champion Jimmie Johnson is someone you always have to compete with, especially at Martinsville. Since his rookie season in 2002, Johnson has collected nine grandfather clock trophies. If Johnson wins, he will automatically advance to the Round of 4 in the playoffs, which is the champion-crowning race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It would also be his tenth win at the Virginia short track.

 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

In his final season as a full-time driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had a generally rough going. Since the playoffs began, however, Earnhardt has put together a string of consistent performances, finishing in the top 15. Dale Jr. always has expressed his love for Martinsville Speedway, and since he missed the playoffs, he has nothing to lose. Expect a very aggressive Earnhardt come race time, as it may be one of his final opportunities to win a race or his second Martinsville win.

 

Denny Hamlin

Anytime you visit the track closest to your home, you want to put on a special performance for your fans. For Denny Hamlin, he’s done it a number of times – five times, in fact, including three consecutive wins. Just as Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin is also in the playoffs and a win this weekend would propel him to the Round of 4.

 

Brad Keselowski

Typically thinking of Martinsville, Brad Keselowski is not among the first names fans might think of as a threat to win. However, his no. 2 team has shown speed these playoffs, with a win at Talladega and four top-10s in six races. He’s also the series’ most recent winner at Martinsville Speedway – in the spring, heled 116 laps and held off Kyle Busch for his first win at the track. He too can advance into the Round of 4 with a win this weekend.

 

Kyle Busch

A winner at Martinsville before, Kyle Busch is known for his aggressive approach to racing. It’s been successful on a variety of short tracks, like at Bristol Motor Speedway in August. Though he came up short in the spring race, he did lead over half of that race. Once again, this is another driver who can advance into the next round of the playoffs with a win this weekend.

 

Martin Truex, Jr.

Let’s just face it – Martin Truex, Jr. has been the best all year long. He leads all drivers this year in race wins, stage wins, laps led, average start, average finish, and just about every other category. While this New Jersey native may not have any career wins at Martinsville, he is a threat to win every week. Truex’s points reset this round as 52 points ahead of the cutoff to transfer into the championship round of the playoffs, so while he might not need the win right now to transfer, you better believe Truex will be up front.

 

DARK HORSE

A.J. Allmendinger

Although A.J. Allmendinger has just one career win in NASCAR’s top series, he seems to find a way to maximize his equipment from the small team he drives for, JTG Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger has been most well-known for his impressive road course skills, and Martinsville requires some of those same skills – tire, brake, and accelerator management. He’s a driver with nothing to lose this weekend, and he always seems to run in the top ten part of the days he’s racing at Martinsville.

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