The Left Turn
NASCAR heads to Martinsville to kick off round of 8
This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for Martinsville, Virginia for the First Data 500. This is the first race of the round of eight and a win for any of the drivers that made it to the next round automatically earns a trip to Homestead-Miami for a chance at the championship. This track is no stranger to controversy considering how narrow it is and how there isn't much room to pass. Over the past two fall races here, there has been a conflict of some sort, in 2017 Denny Hamlin rooted Chase Elliott out of the way for the lead with two to go then last year, Joey Logano gave Martin Truex Jr the chrome horn for the lead on the final corner to win and move on to Homestead. If one thing is for sure, this is a can't miss race and should play a huge role in who gets to contend for a championship.
Last week, Denny Hamlin went on to win his 36th career win at Kansas after fending off Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch. The race was relatively clean until a caution came out for Ryan Blaney. This completely bunched up the whole field and led to three more cautions including a multi-car incident involving Daniel Suarez, Daniel Hemric and playoff contender Joey Logano. As Denny Hamlin was about to cross the finish line to take the white flag and make the race official, the yellow light came on and forced another restart. This was important for a number of reasons considering it gave Chase Elliott and the rest of the field a chance to overtake Hamlin but in the end, it made no difference because there was no stopping the Virginia native as he led a race high 153 laps.
While Hamlin might have won the race, the focus was on both Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski as they were the final two cars battling for the last spot in the round of eight. While Brad's car was good early, he faded towards the closing stages and went one lap down but in the final twelve laps it looked like Brad was going to do just enough to move on to the next round but after multiple cautions, it appeared that Chase Elliott was going to be able to gain the spots needed to overtake Keselowski but then unexpectedly, Joey Logano was involved in a late race caution which would put him in the final spot. When it was all said and done, Brad was not able to beat neither his teammate Joey Logano or Chase Elliott and was eliminated from championship contention. It was definitely a tough break for the 2012 champion considering it has been a good season for him. On the flip side, it was a huge shot in the arm for Chase Elliott and Joey Logano as they were able to overcome adversity and keep their championship hopes alive.
Coming into this next round, many would consider Hamlin the odds on favorite at Martinsville. And while he hasn't won here since 2015 this is still a track that Hamlin has dominated in the past. Overall, he has five victories here and has led over 1,000 laps and while a lot has changed since his last victory here, it is obvious that Hamlin knows how to get around this place. Over the years, Hamlin has done everything but win a title. This year has been easily his best season since 2010 and now he appears to be the championship favorite going into the next four races. I look for Hamlin and his Fedex Camry to be one to watch on Sunday.
The driver that I predict will win come sunday is Martin Truex Jr. Over the course of Truex's illustrious 13 year career, it is hard to believe that he has only won one race at a short track when he won this year at Richmond in May. As I wrote earlier, Truex was a corner away from claiming his first short track win here at Martinsville but was knocked out of the way by Joey Logano. I think come Sunday, Truex will get his redemption and take his seventh victory of the year and will be the first driver to clinch his ticket to Homestead. It will be interesting to see what he does should be in a position to where he would have to move someone out of the way considering he has gone on record by saying he isn't that kind of driver but I don't know if he will have too. Look for Truex to take the Bass Pro Shops Toyota to victory lane.
The eight drivers still alive are Kyle Busch, Truex, Hamlin, Logano, Kevin Harvick, Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney.
(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).