Last Updated: 2017-10-25
The Round of 8 begins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with this Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The drivers will run around the 0.526-mile “Paperclip” for the second time this season and this race is a big one for the eight drivers that are still eligible for the championship. Only four races are left in the 2017 NASCAR season, as things will wrap up on November 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That makes this the 33rd race of the 36-race regular season. We have seen a lot of interesting things this year with the new scoring format and some of the other rules and regulations that have been implemented. The first stop at Martinsville came all the way back on April 2 with the STP 500. We’ve come a long way since then, to say the least. Only eight drivers can still win the title, but a full field will be on hand in these remaining races.
Seven of the eight drivers left in the mix aren’t going to surprise anybody. Martin Truex Jr. is the points leader with 4,069. The points reset to 4,000 for the Round of 8 and then the bonus points collected during the season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs were added to the total. Kyle Busch is second with 4,042 points. Brad Keselowski is third with 4,026 points. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are tied for fourth with 4,017 points. Denny Hamlin is next with 4,014 points. Ryan Blaney is seventh with 4,009 points. Chase Elliott snuck into the Round of 8 and has 4,006 points. He is the only driver without a win in a feature-length race left standing at this point, but he has four top-five finishes in the playoffs.
The biggest surprise is that Kyle Larson was axed from contention last week. Larson, who was around the top spot all year long, failed to finish better than 10th in the Round of 12 and finished 39th at Kansas to seal his fate.
Racing started at Martinsville all the way back in 1949, when Red Byron won the inaugural 200-lap feature in his Oldsmobile. This track has been a twice-a-year venue for NASCAR dating back to 1950, so there is a lot of history at the track, which seats 55,000 spectators right near the Virginia/North Carolina border in the middle of the state.
The clear race favorite this week is Kyle Busch at +225 at 5Dimes Sportsbook. Busch being such a significant favorite is a bit of a surprise, considering the fact that he only has one career win on this track. Busch won last year’s STP 500 to pick up his first victory at Martinsville. He’s had plenty of close calls and good finishes, but it took him that long to break through. He has finished fifth each of the last two years and finished second back in 2012 for his best career finish in this race. He led the most laps and finished second in his quest to repeat in the spring. In total, Busch only has one win, but has 12 career top-five finishes at this race track.
Brad Keselowski might be a bit of a surprising second favorite at +425, but he won the spring race. He was the runner-up in this race last year and also had top-five finishes in the spring race in 2015 and 2016. In nine Martinsville starts with a Ford, Keselowski has five top-five finishes and that win earlier this season. He survived at Talladega in the last round and that is probably the reason why he was able to advance, so playing with a little bit of house money might be an attractive angle.
Martin Truex Jr. is one of the co-third favorites at +650, even though it seems like he has won just about every race this season. Truex generally excels on the 1.5-mile tracks, but he did win the first stage at Martinsville earlier this season. He has three wins in the playoffs, but they have all come on 1.5-mile tracks. He had the pole and finished seventh here last season. Truex hasn’t had a top-five at Martinsville since 2012. If you’re going to try and fade Truex in matchups, this just might be the week. In fact, Truex hasn’t fared very well at Texas or Phoenix, so this could be a tricky round for him. Fortunately, with his point total, he’s all but a guarantee to advance to the Final 4 at Homestead-Miami.
Denny Hamlin is an interesting bet among the lower prices at +650. Hamlin has five career wins at Martinsville, with the most recent coming back in 2015. He’s won this race twice, but hasn’t won it since 2010. Hamlin tends to be a good driver on short tracks and in restrictor plate races, so he likes the feeling of being in traffic, which is a key element of this race on the 0.526-mile track. Since his fourth-place in the first race at Michigan, Hamlin has 12 top-five finishes out of 18 races, including wins at New Hampshire and Darlington.
Richard Petty’s record of 15 career wins at Martinsville will never be touched, but Jimmie Johnson is the only guy that has a shot. Johnson is the active leader in wins at Martinsville with nine. In fact, he won this race last year, so he is certainly a contender at +750. Short tracks do eliminate some of the equipment advantage that other teams seem to have over Hendrick Motorsports at this point. Johnson is a smart, calculated racer with a win on the Bristol short track this season. He also has wins at Texas and Dover. Given his history here, and the recent dominance of Chevrolet in this race, with five straight winners, all from the Hendrick Motorsports team, he has to be a consideration.
Speaking of which, if you’re looking for a little bit of a long shot, Chase Elliott looks very good at +1650. Elliott has finished second in three of the playoff races and fourth in another. He was third at Martinsville in the spring and won the second stage. He’s been pretty good on smaller tracks and the 21-year-old is part of the Hendrick team. He’s been knocking on the door of that win and it would make things very interesting if he could grab it here. Overall, Hendrick Motorsports has 16 wins in this race and eight more in the spring race.
If you really want a beer money long shot bet, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going off at +8000. He only has four races left in his illustrious career. He runs for Hendrick Motorsports and won this race back in 2014. He likes running in close quarters, as evidenced by his successes in plate races, so there are worse long shots you could wind up with than Junior.
Coverage of the First Data 500 will be on NBC Sports Network on Sunday with a 3:00 p.m. ET start time.
Odds as of October 25, 10 a.m. ET
Kyle Busch +225
Brad Keselowski +425
Martin Truex Jr +650
Denny Hamlin +650
Jimmie Johnson +750
Kevin Harvick +1000
Kyle Larson +1500
Matt Kenseth +1500
Chase Elliott +1650
Joey Logano +1750
Clint Bowyer +3300
Ryan Blaney +4400
Jamie McMurray +5000
Kurt Busch +5000
Erik Jones +6000
Dale Earnhardt Jr +8000
Ryan Newman +8000
Daniel Suarez +10000
AJ Allmendinger +10000
Kasey Kahne +10000
Aric Almirola +15000
Ricky Stenhouse Jr +15000
Austin Dillon +15000
Chris Buescher +33000
Paul Menard +33000
Ty Dillon +55000
Michael McDowell +55000
Trevor Bayne +55000
Danica Patrick +55000
-END OF 2017 PREVIEW-
There are only four races left on the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series calendar and only eight drivers are still eligible in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. As we expected, Talladega was a tough race for many drivers and the fact that a restrictor plate race serves as an elimination race is something that should probably be reevaluated next season. In any event, the focus shifts to Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia for this week’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500.
This is the 33rd race of the 36-race regular season and is the first race in the Round of 8. The other two races will be held in successive weeks at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. Martinsville is a very interesting track for this race. It is the shortest track on the circuit, coming in at 0.526 miles and there is no banking in the straightaways. There can be a lot of issues in the turns, with just 12 degrees worth of banking and the brakes are going to get quite a workout from the drivers. Those racers that excel with timing and shifting are going to be the ones that have an edge here. Average speeds for this race are only around 70 miles per hour.
The field has been thinned to some of the biggest names in NASCAR, but some very big names also failed to qualify. Martin Truex Jr., thought to be a great bet with so many 1.5-mile tracks during the Chase, finished 40th at Talladega, despite having the pole position. Even though Truex had two wins in the Round of 16, he cannot win the Sprint Cup. Brad Keselowski led the most laps at Talladega, but he finished 38th for the second straight week and his Chase ended abruptly. He won four races during the regular season, but couldn’t win one in the postseason. Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott were also eliminated.
Those left standing are Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch. The first thing you’ll notice is that Busch, Hamlin, Edwards, and Kenseth are all Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, so that team, which was the best during the regular season, is set up for a very strong postseason as well. All of the drivers reset to 4,000 points for the Round of 8. The top four in points will advance to the championship race at Miami-Homestead on November 20, where the top finisher will be crowned the champion.
A lot of things can happen on the short track, as the cars are really bunched up. That’s reflected in the odds at 5Dimes Sportsbook this week. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are co-favorites at +450. This has been a great track for Hamlin. He owns three victories in the spring race, which was the STP 500 this season. Hamlin won the spring race in 2008, 2010, and also 2015. He’s a two-time winner of the fall race, but he hasn’t won since 2010. A win would guarantee passage to Miami-Homestead for any of the eight eligible drivers and this certainly seems like Hamlin’s best shot.
Kyle Busch won this event back in the fall to cross Martinsville off of his list. There aren’t many tracks that Busch hasn’t won at, but this was one of them. He finished fifth in this race last season and has several top-five finishes at Martinsville, but that win had evaded him. Busch’s closest call in this race came back in 2012 when he finished second. It was all about staying out of trouble at Talladega last week, as Busch entered with four straight top-six finishes.
Jimmie Johnson comes in at +500 here this week. Because the cars are so bunched up, it can eliminate a little bit of the equipment mismatch between teams and it relies more on driver skill to shift at the right time and get off the brakes at the right time. Johnson has been very good at that in his career. He has three wins in the spring race, the last coming in 2013, and he’s won the fall race five times. We saw him win at Charlotte to punch his ticket for this round on a track that he has had plenty of success. He hadn’t won in a while, but turned back the clock to get that win. Can he do the same thing at Martinsville?
Kevin Harvick is a threat to win any race, but he seems overpriced this week at +650. Harvick’s lone win at Martinsville came back in 2011 and he’s fully content to bide his time and post decent finishes until he gets to Phoenix, which is his best track on the circuit. Harvick was eighth here last year and hasn’t cracked the top five in this race since 2011. That’s also the last time he had a top-five finish in the spring race. He did lead the most laps in the spring last year, but finished eighth.
Last week’s winner at Talladega, Joey Logano, is +850 this week as he searches for his first career win at Martinsville. He led the most laps last season before finishing 37th to snap a string of three straight top-five finishes in Ridgeway. He could be a threat this week.
Even though it wouldn’t help the Chase drivers, you can’t help but pull for Jeff Gordon in this race. Gordon has been running in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car while he recovers from a concussion and only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip are more decorated racers at Martinsville than the former Rainbow Warrior. Gordon has won this race five times in his career, with his most recent triumph just last year in what was supposed to be one of his final races. Gordon also has three spring wins at Martinsville. He’s +1700 this week for what should be one of the last races of his career.
Interested viewers and bettors can catch the action on Sunday afternoon with a 1:00 p.m. start time on NBC Sports Network.