Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions in Martinsville: Vengeful Contenders and Crew Swaps

The long, winding road that is the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is entering its final stretch today, with Martinsville Speedway being the site of today’s round of playoff-racing action. Today’s race marks the start of what is arguably the most pivotal round of the Chase, as a win in this round will grant a Chaser with an automatic berth to the Final Four-round in Homestead.

Martinsville, being the shortest and tightest track on the circuit, is usually rife with drama in its own right. But now, with the added pressure of the new-look Chase format, a race that is usually a wild and raucous affair will likely be wilder and more raucous than ever before. Let’s not forget that two of the last three fall Martinsville events have had 17 or more cautions over the course of the race.

All told, with wins meaning more than ever before and Chase-eligible drivers all on equal-footing once more, today will likely be a story-heavy day, so you best prepare yourself by reading the ensuing block of text below.

1. Will payback be elicited for past transgressions?

Save for Bristol and maybe Richmond, there is no track on the circuit that is more conducive to issuing payback to another driver than Martinsville. The track is short, slow, and features bumper-to-bumper racing all day long. It is oh-so-easy here to take out a fellow competitor that you have a problem with and make it look like it was nothing more than a racing deal.

This notion of payback is always a key topic heading into the fall Martinsville event every year, and that certainly has not changed here in 2014. If anything, this current crop of championship contenders figures to have more reasons to watch their back than any other group in recent memory. In fact, you can probably name one right off the bat. Does the name of a certain driver of a certain #2 car ring a bell.

Brad Keselowski has had a stellar season, but could one on-track dustup derail it for good?
Brad Keselowski has had a stellar season, but could one on-track dustup derail it for good?

Indeed, Mr. Brad Keselowski currently has a rap sheet longer than most inmates right now, with drivers all up and down the starting grid having various gripes with him due to different incidents that have occurred this year. Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and Jeff Gordon are key names who all would be more than willing to toss Keselowski into the fence today, and if such a thing does indeed happen, the championship implications would be monumental.

Keselowski certainly isn’t the only one who should have eyes in the back of his head today. Joey Logano Hamlin, Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick are all title contenders who have been involved in notable altercations this season, and if the spark were to ignite once again today, any one of them could be on the wrong end of it.

2. Is a Hendrick victory a foregone conclusion?

Martinsville Speedway has traditionally been a playground for Hendrick Motorsports drivers, as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to collect 11 victories at the facility for NASCAR’s Evil Empire since the fall race here in 2004. Whenever the series enters Martinsville, the Hendrick cars are the preliminary favorites for good reason.

Looking at today’s race, there is very little reason to believe that such an outcome isn’t likely once again. Today’s race is the 10th anniversary of the tragic plane crash the claimed the lives of ten individuals associated with the Hendrick organization. As such, you can be quite sure that all four Hendrick drivers will be going the extra mile today given the historical context of the afternoon.

And of course, let’s not forget that Jeff Gordon, the team’s lone remaining title contender, is the defending winner of this event, and lists Martinsville as both his best and favorite race track. All of Hendrick’s might will be funneled into making sure Gordon sees victory lane today for a variety of now-obvious reasons.

So with all of this in mind, yes, it does almost seem like a foregone conclusion that a Hendrick car is going to victory lane today. When you have that much to race for at a track that you have dominated for a decade, how can you not be the favorite?

3. Could a driver out of the Chase upset the applecart?

Given that only eight drivers are still eligible to win the championship, the chances of a driver who was eliminated from championship contention (or didn’t make the Chase to begin with) winning a race from here on out are now quite high. Normally, this is something that comes up every year around this portion of the Chase, but this year, a win at this stage of the game by a non-Chaser has the potential to seriously upset the apple cart.

Under the new format, anytime a Chase eligible driver wins a race in this round, the Eliminator Round, that driver advances directly to the finale-round in Homestead. Thus, if a non-championship-eligible driver wins any of the races, that driver is essentially robbing a potential title contender of an opportunity to directly advance to the finale. With only three races in the round, this obviously has huge implications, and puts a greater emphasis on point collection in this round as opposed to outright wins.

Looking at today’s field, it seems very likely that a non-championship-eligible driver could indeed steal the win today. Jimmie Johnson is an absolute monster here at Martinsville, and very nearly won the Spring race here earlier this year. Jamie McMurray is another guy who is strong at Martinsville, evidenced by pole run on Friday and general speed all weekend long.

Either one of those guys could take the win in this race and put even more pressure on the Chasers to win at either Texas or Phoenix.

4. Will the Danica Patrick/Kurt Busch crew shakeup pay dividends?

In a proactive move designed to better the performance of each team in 2015, Stewart-Haas Racing did a crew swap between the #10 team and #41 team. The most important factor in all of this? The team’s drivers, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, will have new crew chiefs starting with today’s race. Patrick will now be paired with Daniel Knost while Busch inherits Tony Gibson.

The move comes at a time when the SHR outfit is struggling as a whole, save for the #4 team with driver Kevin Harvick. Looking at the crew swap at a glance, the whole move makes sense. Patrick gets a new-school, engineering-type in Knost which meshes well with her background, while Busch gets an old-school head wrench in Tony Gibson. Today will offer a good indication of how these pairings will end up working.

Should both drivers perform better than they usually do, the experiment will likely prove to be a positive one going forward. But if each driver ends up worse off in today’s race? That could end up being a sign of deeper problems at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500

  1. 24-Jeff Gordon
  2.   1-Jamie McMurray
  3.   2-Brad Keselowski
  4. 20-Matt Kenseth
  5. 11-Denny Hamlin
  6. 48-Jimmie Johnson
  7. 88-Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  8.   4-Kevin Harvick
  9. 15-Clint Bowyer
  10. 22-Joey Logano
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