NASCAR First Data 500 at Martinsville Preview

RIDGEWAY, Va. –– The Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs gets underway this weekend at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN/MRN). Denny Hamlin continued his hot streak by qualifying on the pole for the 500-lap event. Most importantly, he and his No. 11 race team earned the highly coveted first pit stall.

Martinsville Speedway has played a pivotal role in NASCAR’s postseason since the inception of the elimination format for the 2014 season. This year will be no different. Tempers will undoubtedly flare, and feathers will certainly be ruffled. If a playoff driver can survive this weekend without making enemies and securing a large number of stage points or a victory, the weekend should be considered a resounding success.

The 2019 edition of the Round of 8 features Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Ryan Blaney.

Arguably, the driver with the most momentum on the circuit is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, who won at Kansas Speedway last week, is a five-time Martinsville winner. If Hamlin converts his qualifying effort into a victory he will undoubtedly be established as an early favorite for his first Cup Series championship.

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., enter the Round of 8 as the first and second seeds, respectively. However, their playoffs to this point couldn’t be more dissimilar. Although Busch has three top-six finishes in the playoffs, he also has three finishes of 19th or worse. Over the same period, Truex has five finishes of seventh or better including two victories. His only finish worse than seventh in the playoffs is a 26th place in a chaotic Talladega race.

Although Kyle Busch hasn’t had the same postseason success he has enjoyed over the past several seasons, he is still in prime position to be able to secure a spot in the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 17th. Busch has two career wins at the half-mile paperclip.

Truex is in a similar position to Busch thanks to the speed he and his team have shown in the season to this point. Truex will look to earn his first win at Martinsville this weekend.

Surprisingly, Kevin Harvick has flown under the radar over the last six weeks. Despite winning three races in seven starts leading into the playoffs, he has yet to win in NASCAR’s postseason in 2019. However, he has still performed well despite not having race-winning speed. He sports an average finish of seventh in this year’s playoffs and has a solid history at each Round of 8 track, especially Phoenix where he boasts nine career wins. Harvick, along with crew chief Rodney Childers, will have the support of the entire Stewart-Haas Racing shop and will look to use that to their advantage moving forward. Harvick has one Martinsville victory.

Defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano narrowly advanced to the Round of 8 and is also the defending winner of this race. The best thing for Logano heading into this race is the fact that his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski dominated the spring event in Martinsville. If his team can replicate Keselowski’s success from earlier this year, he’ll have a great chance to ensure his place in the Championship Four.

Chase Elliott earned the final position in the Round of 8 after his second-place finish was amplified by Brad Keselowski’s collapse at Kansas. Elliott, who has qualified for this round in three consecutive seasons, has shown flashes of brilliance at each track in this round. Although the task ahead of him is arduous considering the speed the other contenders have shown, Elliott is a talented driver who will aim for his first Ridgeway Grandfather clock and first Championship Four appearance all-in-one this weekend.

Kyle Larson advanced to the Round of 8 through his win at Dover a few weeks ago. Larson has never minced words about his disdain for racing at Martinsville but will have to turn in a good performance this weekend while his championship aspirations hang in the balance. He was unable to secure a significant haul of playoff points throughout the season and starts this round in a 19-point hole to the cutoff line. He will have to exorcise his Martinsville demons if he wishes to advance to Homestead without a victory in this round.

Ryan Blaney survived a calamity-filled race at Talladega two weeks ago and claimed a Round of 8 berth. Blaney, like Larson, failed to secure a large number of playoff points and starts this round in a sizable hole to his teammate Joey Logano, who currently sits in the cutoff position. Blaney has had a fair amount of success at all three Round of 8 tracks, but his points position places him in a virtual must-win heading into Martinsville.

Prediction: It will likely be the Joe Gibbs Racing show on Sunday, or whenever the event is held due to the threat of rain. Considering his recent performances, his current confidence level, and his previous success at this track, Hamlin should be the odds-on favorite to secure his sixth Cup Series victory at Martinsville. Kyle Busch, Truex, Elliott, Keselowski, and Logano should also be strong contenders as well.

Written by Greg Atkins

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