START YOUR ENGINES
With a solid third-place finish last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Jeff Burton's Chase-leading points advantage swelled from six to 45. This week's goal for the other Chasers is to make sure he doesn't pull away any further.
Fortunately for them, Martinsville is a track where no driver is going to run and hide. On the half-mile paper-clip-shaped oval, the brakes run hot and so do emotions over 500 laps. Throw in some desperation with the start of the Chase's second half, and Sunday's Subway 500 shouldn't lack for incidents.
"It's a tough little ol' track, because you can never get away from anybody," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "There's always someone to race, whether it's a lap-down car or for position."
The current Chase leaders did not fare well at Martinsville in April, starting with Burton. He smashed the wall just over 300 laps into the DirecTV 500, ending up 33rd and 74 laps down. Matt Kenseth, currently second in the standings, finished 24th when his brakes went out, adding to his uninspiring record at the track (one top-5 in 13 starts).
Behind Kenseth in the standings are drivers who soon will have to think about top-fives or better if matters don't improve at Martinsville. Kevin Harvick (third in the standings) and Mark Martin (fourth) lost ground at Charlotte, whereas Junior (fifth) and Jimmie Johnson (seventh) had strong finishes.
Johnson has good history to draw from at Martinsville, with a pair of thirds in his last two starts and a win in 2004, and sounds like one of the few who's actually looking forward to a day of banging and braking.
"I can't wait to get back," Johnson said. "That's been a great racetrack for me. I think it's a chance where I can score some points on some of the guys like Matt Kenseth and maybe Burton. I really like the track and I think it's a chance for me to get some points."
The most successful Martinsville drivers lately have been Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, combining for wins in the last three races. But of course Stewart is out of the Chase and Gordon might as well be, so they won't be the primary targets.
For another week the car to catch is the No. 31, and this might be the track to do it at -- or at least close the gap.
"Jeff has been at this a long time, but I don't look at him as indestructible," Earnhardt said. "If he has a mistake or even a couple of bad runs, it will completely shake up the points."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to espn.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sure, odds are against him winning the Chase from his current No. 8 spot in the standings, but Kasey Kahne continues to stay in the conversation. Last month it was by finishing 1-3 at California and Richmond, respectively, to squeeze into the Chase, then last week he won at Charlotte to boost his series-leading win total to six.
With races remaining at Atlanta and Texas, tracks where he has already won this year, it's not far-fetched to think the Evernham Motorsports driver could end up with eight victories or more. So don't be surprised to see more headlines like last week's "Burton retains points lead, Kahne wins race."
There's no arguing Denny Hamlin's outstanding rookie season, though it appears unlikely to be of championship caliber.
The prospects are fading fast as his Chase races have been progressively worse, bottoming out with a 28th at Charlotte following a first-lap wreck that required extensive repairs.
Hamlin's most impressive rookie feat might be his running at the end of every race but one.
That exception came at Martinsville, where he finished a season-low 37th after spinning out after getting a flat tire on lap 307, as his Monte Carlo bowed out early.
And look where the schedule heads this week.
WE'LL SEE YOU AT DAYTONA
Drivers talk about having one mulligan for a bad race in the Chase and staying in the hunt. But three? Sorry, Jeff Gordon. Second in points after the second Chase race at Dover, finishes of 39th, 36th and 24th since have dropped him to 10th.
"The likelihood of having seven, eight guys in front of us having problems to get us back into the Chase is very unlikely," he said.
A Million Reasons
TONY STEWART FINISHES 11TH
Tony Stewart has retained his 11th spot in the standings since missing the Chase, and a repeat of his April win at Martinsville would be one more step toward bagging the $1 million non-Chase consolation prize.
Carl Edwards is 213 points behind Stewart and needs to gain ground quickly, but doing so at a short track would be out of character. His best finish in four Martinsville starts is 16th.