<
>

Keep an eye on more than just Big Three at unpredictable Martinsville

Martinsville is the slowest of all oval tracks on the Cup circuit and doesn't leave much margin for error. Michael Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports

A NASCAR Cup series race at Martinsville Speedway can be difficult to predict, and this year's race seems even less obvious because of the historical dominance at the half-mile racetrack by Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Seventeen years ago, I satisfied a lifelong goal when I rolled under the checkered flag at Martinsville and became a Cup winner. I have vivid memories of that moment, a feeling of time standing still, the emotions of happiness, satisfaction and relief flooding over me.

Although I led the most laps that day, my win was viewed a surprise. Some called it an upset. Then, smart money would have been placed on season favorites Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett or Tony Stewart. The smart money this week will be laid down on season favorites Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

But going with the favorites at Martinsville isn't as simple as it seems.

Martinsville is the slowest of all oval tracks on the Cup circuit. There is no aerodynamic advantage or drafting. The paper-clip-shaped track is a throwback to the very early days of NASCAR racing, as it requires a style or technique that is often similar to that of a road course.

Success is predicated on maintaining solid track position all race long, preserving tires and brakes during long green-flag runs and having a near-perfect day on pit road.

The latter has been a challenge at times during this year's playoffs for the Big Three, but it's not the only reason I see them as vulnerable this weekend.

Here are reasons Martinsville stands out and the drivers I would consider favorites to win Sunday's Cup race (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

Slim margin for error

Martinsville is a difficult track for a driver to defend himself, and a driver's margin for error is, to borrow from the office materials theme, paper thin.

At tracks such as Kansas Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway, drivers have the luxury of moving around the racetrack to find balance in their cars and the ability to navigate traffic and avoid trouble.

At Martinsville, the cars often go to the curb on corner entry and drift to the wall on corner exit. Anything other than that and a driver becomes compromised and typically slows down.

Drivers will be nibbling at your left-rear quarter all race long, and it often causes you to drive deeper into the turn, brake harder than you should and risk creating rear wheel hop. If all that happens, you're almost certain to wreck.

Restarts are intense

Cars leap forward with enormous torque because of the low gear ratio that is run at Martinsville. If a driver misses a shift or even spins his rear tires, it creates or causes an accordion effect and you simply cannot react quickly enough to avoid contacting the car directly in front of you.

If you go slow, chances are you get hit from behind; it's a frustrating element of short-track racing. And the issue of restarts, and the problems they create, seems to strike later in the race as the intensity builds.

Pursuit of the grandfather clock

In a tradition that dates to 1964, a 7-foot Ridgeway clock is presented to the race victor. It is well-documented how highly coveted this trophy is to NASCAR drivers. For example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. considers Martinsville one of the most significant races of the year simply because of the trophy.

While I'm not suggesting drivers will try harder this week than they did last week or the week prior, I can say with confidence that the incentive of taking home the clock feels just a little different.

Across the board, these drivers talk about the trophy all week, and with that desire and pursuit, volatility from within the car often increases. Volatility works against drivers battling to become champion. I believe it works most against those simply looking to have a "safe" day at Martinsville.

So, who wins?

Here are three drivers I consider the favorites. None of the three would be considered an upset if he were to win, but none was a championship favorite heading into the playoffs, either.

  • Clint Bowyer should be at or near the top of everyone's list. He won at Martinsville in the spring, and he has always been very fast at this facility.

    I'm certain Bowyer will play down any added pressure to win this weekend because his persona is happy-go-lucky. He appears better than most at letting things roll off his back, but that's a bit of a facade this time of year -- Bowyer is a fierce competitor with loads of talent.

    It's taken him a long time to position himself to be a championship contender again, and advancing to the final four on Sunday would give him a 25 percent chance of becoming the champion. I think Bowyer is up for the challenge.

  • Joey Logano is flying under the radar. He has had a quietly successful climb into the third round of the playoffs, and, with his two teammates eliminated last week, it will be all hands on deck at Team Penske to help secure the New England native his first Cup title.

    I've always been a subscriber to the adage that you often need to lose a title before you can win one. Logano has twice been in Miami battling for a championship ring, so that experience should enhance his chances if he can get there.

    Perhaps Logano's greatest title chance disappeared in a 2015 dustup at this track with Matt Kenseth, so a win Sunday would be great redemption. He will contend.

  • Chase Elliott is the hottest driver in NASCAR right now, and it is remarkable when you consider he entered August having never won a Cup race. He hasn't been the fastest driver -- in fact, there are nine competitors who have led more laps and nearly that many have qualified better throughout the season -- but, much like his dad, Bill Elliott, Chase has an ability for being in position late and closing out top-5 finishes with the best of them.

    Only NASCAR's Big Three have more top-5 finishes, but none of those three has greater composure, confidence or calm than the 22-year-old has right now.

    Elliott also has valuable perspective, as he came within a whisker (or a Toyota front bumper) of winning this Martinsville race last year.

    Elliott is going to be in Miami battling for a title, and guess what? I made that pick before the playoffs began.

    In a season in which the drivers dominating headlines represent a glut of experience and a plethora of career wins, it has been the youngest guy in the playoffs who has emerged as the star of the show, winning two of the past three races and giving Chevrolet reason to be optimistic.

    Elliott winning Sunday, even at the tender age of 22, wouldn't be considered an upset at this point the way my win 17 years ago was, but a victory would put more wind in the sails of a race team that has a mountain of momentum at exactly the most important time of the year.

    Imagine all of Hendrick Motorsports dedicating two weeks to prepare one car for one race.

    You see where I'm headed, right?

    Now, that would be an upset!