Projections favor Jeff Gordon

Here are the projections for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, pre-race on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a .526-mile oval short track) and time of year.

Kevin Harvick improved his streak to eight consecutive top-two finishes after passing teammate Kurt Busch for second place last week at California. Harvick has tied the fifth-longest such streak in NASCAR Cup Series history. Only Richard Petty has had a longer streak, the most recent of which came in 1975 (a record 11 straight). In NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972), there has been only two streaks of at least eight straight top-two finishes: Harvick’s current run and Richard Petty’s record 11 straight in 1975. Harvick has actually led a higher percentage of laps during his current run than Petty did during his. However, Harvick has traditionally struggled at Martinsville. In 27 starts, he has just three top-five finishes with an average finish of 16.4.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the most recent Cup race at Martinsville, but it’s Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson who are among the best all-time at the track, with each winning there eight times. Gordon has never won nine races at a single track, and Johnson is looking to become the sixth driver to win at least nine times at multiple tracks (he has also done so at Dover).

A fifth Hendrick Motorsports driver will be on the track Sunday, as Chase Elliott will make his Sprint Cup Series debut. Elliott is the defending NASCAR XFINITY Series champion and the only teenager to win a title in NASCAR National Touring Series history. If Elliott finishes poorly, it’s not a big cause for concern. Both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon wrecked in their Cup Series debuts driving for Hendrick Motorsports and finished outside the top 30.

Three drivers have started this season with five straight top 10s. From 2011-14, no driver started a season with six straight top 10s, and it has happened only twice in the past 22 seasons. Most notably, Martin Truex Jr. has started with five top-10s in a row. He has already equaled his last season totals of one top-five and five top-10s.