The Left Turn

NASCAR heads to Martinsville to kick off round of 8

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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).

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It is the end of an era this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series ends it season here for the final time. It was announced earlier this year in 2020 that NASCAR would conclude its season at Phoenix ending a 17-year tradition. While this track will still have a race here next season, it will be very weird to see champions week in Phoenix as opposed to the sunny beaches of Miami. This track has provided some of the most thrilling finishes in the past including the 2005 Ford 400 when Greg Biffle and Mark Martin finished side by side or of course in 2011 when Tony Stewart came back from multiple laps down to beat Carl Edwards for the championship. While the track will remain on the schedule next year, it simply won't be the same considering the circumstances. Not only is this track a fan favorite but also a favorite among drivers as well. I hope that NASCAR can reconsider to move this race back when they completely overhaul the schedule again in 2021.

Last week, Denny Hamlin went on to claim 37th career victory after annihilating the competition. With this victory, Hamlin will race for a chance to claim his first championship. This was a relatively calm race where there wasn't a lot going on. Passing was scarce throughout the race as it has been on a lot of these types of race tracks. Overall, the race was a pretty massive disappointment. Many fans were upset that this would be the track that would move to the season finale next season after what we saw on Sunday. While I understand their frustration, once again this goes back to how massive these spoilers are on this car and what a huge amount of drag they provide on smaller tracks like this one, if they can go to a smaller spoiler I think this problem should be eliminated. Let's hope that is the plan going forward next season and NASCAR's higher ups will listen to their drivers for once.

Another major headline this week was the announcement that next season Daniel Suarez will not return to the #41 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing. As many would expect the driver that moves up to replace him is Cole Custer. This comes as a sort of a surprise considering there was news that the team was working with Suarez and his people on an extension. According to Adam Stern, after Suarez's sponsor Arris modems was purchased by a new company this postponed contract negotiations with the team and they simply ran out of patience. This is extremely unfortunate for Suarez. While many people were critical of him not being able to claim his first win, Suarez was having a pretty solid season. While I am happy to see Custer get his chance, I hope Daniel can find a competitive ride in 2020.

As I wrote earlier, this race will decide the champion. The four drivers that have made it are Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Hamlin. These four drivers easily have a great case on why they have made it this far. The four have combined for 21 wins so it's safe to say these are the best four drivers in NASCAR right now. Of the four the favorite going into this race is Hamlin. Throughout his career, Hamlin has won everything there is to win but a championship. He has come painfully close so many times, including in 2010 when he spun out early at Homestead or in 2014 when he finished seventh behind Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick. Many believe that this is Denny Hamlin's year and they have great reason for thinking so. He has won here twice back in 2009 and 2013 so he should be a great threat to take victory. One of the unsung heroes when it comes to Hamlin's success has been crew-chief Chris Gabehart. Not only has he has done an excellent job at making this car fast, he has also done a good job at keeping his driver from getting too riled up; at Martinsville he was able to restrain Hamlin from going and knocking Joey Logano's lights out so he has done a great job of that as well. Look for Hamlin to be fast come Sunday.

While he isn't exactly the favorite, Kevin Harvick definitely isn't one to sleep on when it comes to these big races. When this format was first implemented in 2014, Harvick was its first champion. While he hasn't been able to follow up with a championship since, he has still been around the top four as he has made it to the championship race every year but 2016. He has been the definition of consistency and will definitely be up front. Throughout the season, Harvick has been kind of under the radar as he didn't win his first race till New Hampshire in July. He has really come to life since then by winning three races including the one that locked him into Homestead at Texas. Look for the #4 Mustang to be a contender.

It has been quite the season for Kyle Busch. In the regular season, he was able to claim four victories at tracks like Poccono and California. The second half of the season has been a different story. Since then he has yet to find victory lane and has had numerous instances of bad results including blowing an engine at Indy and voluntarily parking his car at the Charlotte Roval after his car was damaged from an earlier accident. Regardless of his troubles, Busch has been able to collect enough stage points over the races preceding the playoffs and find himself right back in the championship race. While any other time I would like his chances, I believe that right now his heart seems to be somewhere else but I could very well be wrong. Regardless Busch will definitely make this race very interesting.

The driver I have winning the title this year is Martin Truex Jr. As we all know, Truex has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where he is. Last season, after he finally seemed to find some stability and a championship, the ground seemed to be pulled underneath him as it was announced late last year that Truex's team Furniture Row would cease operations. While most pretty much nkew Truex would move to Joe Gibbs racing, this was just another obstacle for the vetran driver. When moving on to Joe Gibbs, Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn would pick up almost right where they left off and go on to win seven races and breeze a spot in the championship race at Homestead. This week, I think that Truex will cap off an incredible season with another win and a second championship and here is why I think so, of all drivers nobody has finished better than Truex. He currently enters this race with a 1.50 average finish since 2017. The man has been the closest thing to automatic here and this week should be no different. Look for Martin Truex Jr. to take the checkered flag and claim his second championship.

(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).

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