It’s crunch time for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Just four races remain in the 2017 championship, with only eight drivers still in the hunt for the crown. This weekend, the series heads to Martinsville Speedway for the First Data 500; the first of three races that will decide which four drivers will enter the final race of the season and championship contenders.
Martinsville Speedway is the shortest track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. At just 0.526 miles or 847 meters, the track, nicknamed ‘the paperclip’ features twelve degrees of banking at each end of the track, with each side almost resembling a hairpin; such is the tightness of turns one and two and turns three and four. The long straight-aways leading up to the tight turns provide heavy breaking and intense action for all five-hundred laps of the two annual races held at the venue.
The track was built in 1947 and was one of the first paved ovals in NASCAR competition. The first NASCAR premier series event at the venue was held in 1949, with Red Byron taking his #22 Oldsmobile to victory. Since then, one-hundred and thirty-six races have been held at the venue. Hendrick Motorsports are the winningest team at the circuit with twenty-four victories to their names, with an incredible five straight victories in this weekend’s event. In the last five First Data 500’s, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have both taken two wins each, with Dale Earnhardt Jr also taking a win in 2014.
Last time out:
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced at Martinsville Speedway was back in April for the STP 500. Qualifying for the event was cancelled due to rain, with Kyle Larson being given pole position due to him being the championship-leader at that time. Larson fell back from pole position in the first stage, with Toyota taking a 1-2-3 with Martin Truex Jr, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
Stage two would go the way of Hendrick Motorsports, with Chase Elliott taking the win, but it looked as though the #18 of Kyle Busch still had the ultimate pace. Kyle led a race-high 274 laps in his Joe Gibbs Racing Camry, but with forty-two laps remaining, Keselowski would pounce into the lead and power on to take his second win of the season. Busch would hold on to take second, with Elliott continuing Hendrick Motorsports’ good form at Martinsville with third place in the #24 Chevrolet.
Last week’s race at Kansas Speedway saw four more playoff contenders eliminated from the championship hunt. Arguably, as expected, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr reached the end of the road for their title ambitions, but the other two eliminated drivers were much more surprising losses.
Kyle Larson’s Kansas race was over far too quickly. His #42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet suffered an engine failure early on, relegating Larson to the garage for the remainder of the race. Despite his race retirement, if circumstances had gone his way, he might’ve just snuck into the next round of the playoffs. However, a late surge in positions from Kyle Busch would deny Larson a place in the top eight.
The other casualty was the #20 of Matt Kenseth. Matt’s elimination largely came about due to unusual circumstances. He entered the race below the cut-line, but with his rivals struggling, he may well have finished high enough to lift himself out of the elimination positions. However, after sustaining damage in a massive wreck in the final segment, he was forced to come to pit road for repairs. Whilst on pit-road, too many crew-members came over the wall to service his car; earning him a penalty. Since he had been on the five-minute repair clock at the time, the penalty given by NASCAR officials was an automatic repair clock failure; thus ending his race prematurely and denying him a chance of fighting for his playoff survival.
Through all the chaos, Martin Truex Jr would take his second win of the playoff round. His win two weeks before at Charlotte had already locked him into the next round. Brad Keselowski’s win at Talladega also secured him a spot. The remaining six places would go the way of Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Blaney.
Hendrick Motorsports will be vying to take a sixth consecutive Martinsville fall-race victory this weekend. Last year’s victory went the way of the #48 of Jimmie Johnson; with the win putting him straight into the championship four that fought for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He would then go on to take the championship at that race. A repeat win at Martinsville this weekend could pave the way for Johnson to defend his championship.
Johnson’s team-mate Chase Elliott could also be in the hunt this weekend. Like Johnson, Elliott has shown great pace in recent years at the paperclip. If he can finally take his first NASCAR Cup Series victory it would be a momentous occasion, as it would also earn him a ticket to the “winner takes all” championship finale in Florida.
Martinsville could well be the last opportunity for Dale Earnhardt Jr to win in his NASCAR Cup Series career. With just four races left until his retirement, if Dale Jr can’t capitalize on his and his team’s good prior form at the circuit, he may not get another chance to get to victory lane in his final full-time season.
Outside of the Hendrick Motorsports stable, Brad Keselowski will be hoping to sweep Martinsville by following up his win in April with another this weekend. If he can, Keselowski will earn himself a spot in the championship four; which would be the first time since winning his Cup series championship in 2012 that he has made it to the final round of the season and still been in contention for the crown.
Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Martinsville will be televised by Premier Sports, NBCSN NBC and the NBC Sports App this weekend. This weekend will be a two-day format. Two practice sessions will take place on Saturday, with both qualifying and the race taking place on Sunday.