Sunday’s First Data 500 Race Preview

The opening race of the Round of 8 is already upon us. It’s getting crunch time now. 16 drivers entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs last month with championship aspirations. That field has now been cut in half. There are eight drivers left standing hoping that they can advance out of the third round and into the Championship 4 for a shot at the 2019 season champion at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

First though, is Sunday’s First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.

How To Watch

Coverage – 3 p.m. ET

TV – NBCSN

Radio – MRN

Distance 500 Laps/263 Miles

Stage Lengths – 130/130/240

Playoffs – RD 3, Race 1

Defending Race Winner – Joey Logano

Stage Points Matter, Playoff Points Not So Much

For the first 32 races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, playoff points were big. A stage win nets you one playoff points while a race win will give you five more. That was a huge addition for getting drivers Joey Logano and Kyle Busch to the Round of 8. They have lacked success in the playoffs but their playoff points accumulated during the regular season have carried them to this point.

But, now that we’re into the third round, playoff points are out the window. We have one more round after this one – the Championship 4. We know that the points aren’t reset after Phoenix. The four drivers to make it to the finals in Homestead will be equal. There’s no points racing in South Florida next month. May the best man, or top finisher in that race, win.

So, you can’t fall back on playoff points anymore. Then, if a playoff driver wins this round, which all likelihood that they will, they will move onto Homestead. So, if the three different drivers among the Round of 8 drivers win the next three weeks, then they take three of the four spots in the Championship 4. That leaves one spot available for a wildcard. Playoff points won’t determine who moves on, those are already accounted for. Overall points will though.

That’s why stage points will be huge this round because we know at least one spot will advance to the final round on points alone.

So, for the first time all year, stage points not playoff points mean the most starting this weekend in Martinsville.

Round of 8 Drivers Not Shocking

When you look at what drivers are left still standing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, it shouldn’t come to any surprise to see the eight names listed. Over the last four seasons, the top drivers in the sport are still competing for a title.

Out of those eight drivers still left standing, five of them rank in the top six on the list for most wins since 2016. Shocking, right? Martin Truex Jr. leads the way with 22 victories in that time frame. Kyle Busch is second with 21. Kevin Harvick is third at 17. The Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are next best with 13 and nine respectively while Denny Hamlin also has 10 wins himself.

Also, since 2014, the year that the Championship 4 was adopted, four of the five drivers to have won a championship under this format are still left too. Coincidentally enough, all four are listed for most wins above too.

Furthermore, if you go back to 2013 even, every champion with the exception of Jimmie Johnson is still in the hunt for this year’s championship.

What’s crazy about all of this though, is that we’ve had five straight years with a different champion, all coming from a different team too. We’ve never had more than four straight years of a new champion in the history of the sport until now. We’re in the midst of five right now.

But, if that streak is to keep going, Kyle Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing are the only ones to keep the driver/team streak afloat. They’re the only team left that hasn’t won a championship since 2014.

But, if you keep it going in terms of a new driver winning too, you have to exclude Harvick, Busch, Truex and Logano from that. In turn, it leaves Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin as the ones up.

Winless Droughts Coming to An End In 2019

The year of 2019 can be known as a season in which long winless droughts ended. It all got started in the first race of the year in Daytona. Denny Hamlin ended a 45 race winless drought in the season opening Daytona 500. Kurt Busch won for the first time in nearly a year (30 races) with his thrilling victory in July at the Kentucky Speedway. Erik Jones won for the first time in over a year (42 races) in his Southern 500 victory on Labor Day weekend. Then, Kyle Larson (75 races) and Ryan Blaney (37) each won the first two races of the Round of 12 to end long droughts themselves.

But, they’re not the only ones. We saw two drivers reach victory lane for the first time of their careers this year too.

Alex Bowman earned his first win in 133 career start in June at Chicagoland. Justin Haley earned his first win a week later in Daytona.

That leaves a handful of drivers with long streaks left. Paul Menard hasn’t won in 300 races (2011 Brickyard 400. David Ragan hasn’t won in 238 races (2013 Talladega). Chris Buescher hasn’t won in 119 races (2016 Pocono). Ryan Newman’s streak has reached 100 races (2017 Phoenix). Jimmie Johnson’s is 91 (2017 Dover). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (87 – Daytona 2017), Austin Dillon (67 – Daytona 2017), Clint Bowyer (53 – Michigan 2018) and Aric Almiorla (37 – Talladega 2018) are the only ones with long droughts left.

Important Race For The Championship

Martinsville is important for a number of reasons. First off, everyone wants to take home a shiny new Grandfather clock. I’m mean, who wouldn’t want a unique piece of hardware in your home?

Secondly, if one of the eight remaining playoff eligible drivers can reach victory lane on Sunday evening, then they know that they have a guaranteed spot into the Championship 4.

Think that’s not enough on the line?

What if I also told you that two of the last three Cup champions won this race in fact. Jimmie Johnson won the Fall Martinsville race in 2016 and was crowned the season champion three weeks later in Homestead. Joey Logano did the same thing last year.

Everyone wants to feel the weight of the world off their shoulders for the next two weeks, so you can be assured that all eight playoff drivers are wanting this win on Sunday evening.

Late Race Crash?

To tie this into the point above, the last two years we’ve seen some late race drama in Martinsville. In 2017, it was Denny Hamlin purposely getting into Chase Elliott heading into Turn 3 while going for the lead. Hamlin, knew what was at stake. Win that race and advance. In turn, it cost both drivers and Kyle Busch snuck in and won the race.

Last year, Joey Logano caught and got into Martin Truex Jr. on the last lap. The duo and Hamlin crossed the finish line within inches of one another. Truex, wasn’t too thrilled with Logano’s move but it didn’t matter, Logano won and was championship bound.

Will this weekend’s race produce some late race fireworks again?

Will Sunday’s Race Still Be Difficult To Pass

Speaking of fireworks, will it even happen this weekend? See, these cars are much harder to get to the bumpers of one another now. They’re still very aero dependent and it’s amplified more on short tracks.

When NASCAR unveiled the 2020 racing package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series a couple of weeks ago, it was met with some criticism. The announcement said that there would be only small tweaks to the on track product between this year and next.

See, some fans weren’t too fond of that. While the racing has been an overall improvement this year compared to the year’s past, what we’ve seen on tracks that are one mile and length and shorter still have some work to do.

Two weeks ago in Talladega, we had 46 lead changes. It was some of the best racing we’ve seen there in quite some time. But, the week prior to that in Dover, it was a snoozefest.

It used to be short tracks producing the best racing. Instead, night races on 1.5-mile tracks in fact have. The proof is in the pudding. Dover was a prime example of that.

The stats read 14 lead changes – but most of those were during green flag pit sequences. We only saw three cautions on the entire day, two of which being for stage breaks and the other on the seventh lap for debris. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson combined to lead 372 of the 400 laps run.

In the May race at Dover, Truex and Chase Elliott combined to lead 277 of the 400 that day. Furthermore, the top five finishers in the spring race led 290 of the 400 laps. The same top four finishers in May were the ones taking the top four spots on Sunday.

The Spring race read – Truex-Bowman-Larson-Harvick as the top four.

The opening race this round at Dover read – Larson-Truex-Bowman-Harvick as the top four.

“Tough to pass” was the comment theme out of the drivers’ mouths after the race ended.

“It’s just really hard to pass and it took a while for the track to widen out,” said third place finisher Alex Bowman.

“Once we lost control – lost the clean air – it was so difficult to pass,” said fifth place finisher Denny Hamlin who led a race high 218 laps that Sunday. “I needed to be up front with as tight as my car was.”

“The car was really fast,” said seventh place finisher Matt DiBenedetto. “Even faster than seventh-place, but you get in situations with the dirty air and with the high downforce it was a lot harder to pass. The fastest drivers had to be a lot more disciplined. You had to stay behind them and not abuse your stuff and wait for traffic or situations to pounce.”

“When we were in clean air, our lap times were great,” Jimmie Johnson said, who also finished eighth. “Just as everyone experienced, it was really tough to pass. We had a few things that set us back and lost track position throughout the day. But we had a really fast race car. We were able to pass some, which I don’t think many could pass at all.”

“We started 17th and finished 10th, I don’t know,” said 10th place Clint Bowyer. “It was hard to pass. Extremely hard to pass. Almost impossible. You had to have a really, really good car. It was just kind of a struggle out there all day long for us.”

“It was very hard to pass today at Dover,” said Daniel Suarez.

“I had a difficult time passing cars, especially in traffic,” said Austin Dillon.

They’re right. The eye test showed a lot of single file running with the difficulty to pass at an all time high. It happened also at Phoenix, another one-mile track, back in March too. Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney combined to lead 291 of 312 laps that day. Furthermore, four of the top five finishers that day led 304 of the 312 laps run. Stats show 17 lead changes but again, most were on green flag pit sequences.

New Hampshire, a one-mile track, had 14 lead changes but between Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, they led all but 29 laps that July day.

One mile tracks aren’t producing on track lead changes, they’re producing some dominating runs instead.

Richmond and Martinsville, tracks shorter than one mile in length did too. In the spring race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway, Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps. Second place finisher Chase Elliott led 49 of 500 laps himself. Between them, that’s 495 of 500 laps led. Joey Logano led the other five laps in a four lead change race.

Will that type of performance happen again on Sunday?

Richmond’s spring race saw eight lead changes. The top eight finishers led all 400 laps with Truex Jr. and Busch leading 287 of the 400 laps.

The playoff Richmond race saw Truex, Busch and Keselowski lead all 400 laps in a six lead change race.

So, why is passing on these tracks so hard?

Well, with a high downforce package, the cornering speeds are higher. There’s less time off the throttle. Drivers are nearly flat out through the turns which means it’s hard to pass when you’re going the same speed.

Also, factor in the dirty air in wake with the large spoiler throwing dirty air on the front end of the cars behind and you get follow the leader racing.

How can you pass when the front end is either too tight or too loose? How can you close in when you and the car in front are going the same speed anyways?

That’s why the on track product with this package is hurting the racing.

Parity

We’ve had six playoff races run and in them, we’ve seen five different winners from four different teams. The only repeat winner is Martin Truex Jr. who won the first two races of the postseason.

After has been wide open.

Chase Elliott closed down the first round with a victory on the ROVAL in Charlotte. Kyle Larson kicked off the second round with a win at Dover. Ryan Blaney then won a rain delayed race at Talladega a week later. Denny Hamlin concluded the Round of 12 with a win in Kansas.

Joe Gibbs Racing-Hendrick Motorsports-Chip Ganassi Racing-Team Penske-JGR all in the last five races.

Clean Races

So far, we’ve had some very clean races during the playoffs. Really, other than the wildcard races on the ROVAL and at Talladega, the rest of the races have been fairly tame.

93-percent of the races outside of Charlotte and Talladega in the playoffs have been run in green flag conditions. 245 of the 267 laps run (92%) in Vegas saw green flag action. We had just four cautions for 22 laps that day.

In Richmond, there were only 5 cautions for 32 laps which resulted in 368 of the 400 laps run during green flag (92%).

In Dover, there were just three cautions for 17 laps. That’s 383 of 400 laps (96%) run under green.

Then last weekend in Kansas, 245 of the 277 laps run were under green (88%). There were seven cautions for 32 laps, but three of them over the final 25 laps run overall.

On those four races, there were a total of 19 cautions, eight of those are for stage breaks.

By comparison, the ROVAL saw 10 cautions for 23 laps. That equated to 74% (67 of 109) laps raced under green flag conditions. In Talladega, we had nine cautions for 43 laps. That’s 145 of 188 Laps (77%) under green.

Martinsville was tame in March. Expect this weekend’s race to be the same.

Playoff Points Have Carried Logano, Busch To This Point

We all talk about how playoff points could come into play in NASCAR’s postseason, but never do we really factor them once the playoffs start. See, the reason the top drivers have the playoff points that they do is because they’re on top of their game. If you get a lot of playoff points accumulated, it’s because you’ve won a lot of races and/or stages.

You get five playoff points for each race win and one for each stage win. So for drivers like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano to have scored 46 and 30 respectively, it wasn’t like it was a fluke for them to have that much.

Even in past year, the guys with the most playoff points still kept going in the postseason. Busch, Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have been known to accumulate a large amount of them, then roll though the playoffs by winning and not having to rely on their banked playoff points.

This year though has been different.

Martin Truex Jr. has scored 42 of them, but he had less than 30 coming into the playoffs. He scored 10 of those 42 in two wins in the opening round. Then, he was runner-up at Dover in the first race of the second round and in Kansas to easily skate by and not have to rely on his points.

Kevin Harvick has scored four top seven finishes in six tries this postseason. Why rely on his 28 playoff points scored so far?

Denny Hamlin has now 37 playoff points but also has four top five finishes in six tries himself.

Those three would have made it to this point off finishes alone. The same can’t be said for Busch or Logano. If they didn’t have the playoff points that they do, they may not have made it out of the first round.

Busch’s playoff finishes have been 19th, second, 37th, sixth, 19th and third respectively. He’s only had five top five finishes in his last 14 starts on the season.

If you think that’s bad, look at Logano’s numbers.

His playoff finishes have been – ninth, 11th, 10th, 34th, 11th and 17th respectively. The defending series champion only has one top five finish in his last 15 starts on the season. Furthermore, nine of his last 12 races have been him finish outside of the top 10.

By comparison, Alex Bowman had three top six finishes in six playoff starts. He’s been eliminated. Brad Keselowski had five top five finishes over his last nine starts on the season He’s been eliminated. Ryan Newman has three top 10’s including two of those being in the top five, one of which being a runner-up. He’s been eliminated. Clint Bowyer has four top 10’s, all coming in his last five starts on the season. He’s been eliminated.

Meanwhile, Logano and Busch are still fighting for the title. That’s because of their large amounts of playoff points scored in comparison to everyone else.

Newman had zero playoff points. Bowyer had one. Bowman had five.

This is the first year we can really see how the playoff points accumulated in the regular season can help.

JGR/Penske Eyeing 5th Martinsville Win In Last 6 Races

So, who wins Sunday? It likely will be among the playoff contenders. With so much on the line, why would a non playoff driver reach victory lane on Sunday evening?

Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing make the most sense to produce a winner. They took four of the top five finishing spots in the spring race and have six of the still eight eligible drivers in the playoffs right now. They’ve also won four of the last five races on the Virginia paperclip as well.

Brad Keselowski has five top five finishes in his last nine starts on the season and seven straight top 10 finishes in Martinsville including leading 446 of 500 laps in a dominating day back in March. He’s also had a top five in six of those seven races as well. He wants to play spoiler.

Joey Logano won this race last year and has three top six finishes in his last five Martinsville starts.

Ryan Blaney led 145 laps in last year’s spring race to go along with his last four Martinsville finishes being eighth, third, 10th and fourth respectively.

That’s a good group for Penske.

JGR has a good group too.

Kyle Busch hasn’t finished outside of the top five since 2015. That’s 10 starts. Denny Hamlin was runner-up last year and fifth in the spring race. His last four playoff finishes at Martinsville have been – third, third, seventh and second respectively. That leaves Martin Truex Jr. who’s never won at Martinsville but did sweep both races this year at Richmond. He also has a top 10 finish in eight of his last 10 Martinsville starts including being second, fourth, third and eighth respectively in his last four.

Kevin Harvick Has Been Close, But Not Close Enough For Martinsville Win

While Penske and Gibbs have been strong lately in Martinsville, Stewart-Haas Racing has been the next best. All four of their cars came away with top 10 finishes back in March with being 6-7-9-10.

With only Kevin Harvick being playoff eligible, he’s the top choice to win amongst them. The problem is, he’s still searching for his first Grandfather clock. Harvick, only has two top five finishes at Martinsville since 2012, both coming in his last four starts though. In fact, his last four finishes on the paperclip have been fifth, fifth, 10th and sixth respectively.

He’s just missing something in comparison to JGR and Penske and even Hendrick Motorsports in fact.

Harvick knows that this likely isn’t his best shot of winning this round. The next two races are. With where he stands in the playoff standings and knowing that three drivers can make it to Homestead on wins and leave only one spot open for a wildcard, a solid top 10 would suffice for the SHR driver to ensure he can be the one that grabs that wildcard position if he can’t win.

Larson Not Fond Of Martinsville, Knows He May Be Facing A Must Win This Round

When Kyle Larson won the first race of the Round of 12, his initial thoughts were that he’s happy to not have to worry about the next race looming in Talladega. Good thing too, he finished in the back that day. But, his next thoughts were, yes he knows he’s racing for a championship still in the Round of 8, but he was also fearful of Martinsville too.

Larson, has made it crystal clear, he doesn’t like racing at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. That fear could force him to have to win a race over the next three weeks.

While the Chip Ganassi Racing driver certainly is a championship contender in that he has eight top eight finishes in his last 12 starts on the season, he’s failed to score a top five on the .526-mile Virginia oval since 2016. Furthermore, he’s only led 29 laps there too.

His last six finishes at Martinsville read – 14th, 17th, 37th, 16th, 37th and 18th respectively. For a championship eligible driver that’s lacking in playoff points, he starts this weekend already in a large deficit.

He only scored 11 playoff points thus far. He and Ryan Blaney are the only one left in the playoff picture that has less than 20. That’s why he’s in the hole that he’s in. Kyle Busch has scored 46. Martin Truex Jr. has scored 42. Denny Hamlin has 37 while Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick has accumulated 30 and 28 themselves respectively. Chase Elliott has 24.

Larson, enters the Round of 8 with an 18 point gap to the Championship 4 bubble because of that. With how much he’s struggled at Martinsville lately mixed with how well all seven of those drivers are there, he knows he could be facing a must win this round.

For a driver that was in a 75 race winless drought, he’s going to be asked to win at least twice in a six week span. Martinsville, may not be that place.

Neither could the next race at Texas. He’s only scored three top five finishes in 12 tries in the Lonestar state. He was 39th back in the spring race in April. He has six finishes of 23rd or worse there.

That’s why Phoenix could be the best must win scenario for him.

Larson, has four top six finishes in his last six starts in the Arizona desert. Half of those six he came home in the top three.

Right now, they’re the little team left that could, albeit that they’re not a little team per say. Since 2016, Joe Gibbs Racing has won 45 times. Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske have won 24 times a piece themselves. Between them, that’s 92 victories over the last 139 races.

How many does Chip Ganassi Racing have in that same time frame?

Seven.

Blaney Lacks Playoff Points, But Could Produce Win This Round

Like Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney has scored very few playoff points this season. Larson, only has 11, Blaney has nine. That’s why his win in Talladega was big in so many ways. Those five additional playoff points were huge. If he still gets to the Round of 8 but doesn’t win, he’d only have four playoff points and head to Martinsville -25 already.

That is a lot to make up on championship caliber drivers in three weeks. Instead, he’s 20 points arrears which is still a lot, but those five extra points could prove to be the difference.

This round has some good track for the Team Penske driver.

Blaney, has four consecutive top eight finishes in Martinsville including being third and fourth respectively in the last two spring races. He even led 145 laps in the 2018 spring race.

Then, it’s to Texas where he has three top six finishes in his last four tries. The only reason it’s not four straight is because of bad luck in the spring race on the 1.5-mile track. Blaney, led 45 laps at Texas this past April before finishing 37th. He was also runner-up in the playoff race last November too.

Then, it’s the cutoff race at Phoenix where he finished third at this past March.

This round is setup for Blaney to points his way by. While there’s some good tracks for everyone else this round too, both Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are struggling right now which could open the door for Blaney to sneak in.

 

 

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