The NASCAR Cup Championship Playoffs have been very exciting so far. We’ll see if that continues on the Half Mile of Mayhem known as Martinsville Speedway for this week’s First Data 500. The drivers will make 500 laps around the .526-mile short track in near the Virginia and North Carolina border in the tiny town of Ridgeway in the first race of the Round of 8.
We’ll break this one down with odds on the right-hand side for desktop viewers and down below the comment box for mobile viewers as we look at the 33rd race of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Masters of Martinsville
For whatever reason, among the nicknames of the track in Martinsville is the “Augusta National of Race Tracks”. The paperclip-shaped track represents one of the two short tracks in the playoffs. The other is in Virginia as well at Richmond Raceway.
Martinsville’s 12-degree turns and flat straightaways make this one of the most interesting short tracks in the world. The surface is an asphalt and concrete mixture, so tire wear can be a really big factor. Weather can obviously be a big factor anytime you go to a climate such as this in late October.
This is a really important race for a lot of drivers because the three remaining races are 1.5-mile tracks. We haven’t seen the usual level of 1.5-mile dominance from the top names in the sport, but the playoff drivers and the others seeking a win know that opportunities will be limited in the next three races.
Jimmie Johnson is the active leader at Martinsville with nine career victories. The only active drivers with multiple wins in this race are Denny Hamlin, whose most recent came in 2015, and Brad Keselowski, who won in 2017 and 2019. Hamlin and Johnson are the only active multiple winners in the spring race.
We went from 12 down to 8 after the Hollywood Casino 400 last week. Hopefully you had a piece of Denny Hamlin last week at +1760. He was mentioned as an “intriguing” pick, but not listed as an official selection for the article.
In any event, Hamlin was safely on to the next round, but the win added some playoff points. Scores were reset to 4,000 points and then the bonus points were tacked on. Kyle Busch leads with 46 bonus points. Martin Truex Jr. is second with 42. Hamlin is third with 37. Joey Logano is fourth with 30. Kevin Harvick (28), Chase Elliott (24), Kyle Larson (11), and Blaney (9) make up the rest of the Elite Eight and the last four sit below the cut line going into Martinsville.
We lost Keselowski, William Byron, Alex Bowman, and Clint Bowyer following Kansas. Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, and Erik Jones were chopped after the Roval race at Charlotte. Larson would have been chopped after Kansas, but he won at Dover in the first race of the Round of 12 and that took Keselowski out of the picture.
Dabbling in Data
As we look at the setup for the First Data 500, we see Kyle Busch at the top of the board at +275. Busch only has one win in each Martinsville race, but he hasn’t finished outside the top five in a Martinsville start since this race in 2014. He’s been fourth, first, fifth, and fifth in this one and third, second, second, first in the spring. Since 2005, Busch has 16 career top-five finishes here. He’s led the most laps five times, twice in winning efforts. He was second on the short track at Richmond in the last round and led the most laps there.
Hamlin is next at +495. Hamlin was second in this race last year and has three top-five finishes in his last four fall starts at The Paperclip. He has five career wins here, but hasn’t won since 2015. He hasn’t won this race since 2010. He’s had 10 top-five finishes since mid-July, however, so he has been running extremely well.
It is a little interesting to see Truex here at +660. Truex, known more as a 1.5-mile guy, has finished third and second in this race the last two years. He was fourth in the spring race last year and eighth this year. He hasn’t won here, but he has run a lot better here in a Toyota than he did previously in a Chevy or in a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. Toyotas occupy the first three spots on the odds board, which is telling.
You’ll see Keselowski’s name mentioned again in the picks section, but he’s among three drivers at +770. He is the only one no longer in playoff contention. Logano and Elliott are the others. Remember when Elliott was double digits for every race? Not anymore. He was second here in the spring.
Harvick is +1240. Some people will bet on him assuming some sense or urgency for sitting fifth in points, but he is exceptional at Phoenix and that race is coming up. He’ll be a popular pick there, especially if his back is against the wall and he needs a win.
After Blaney at +1240, next up is Clint Bowyer at +2750. Larson, Jones, and Johnson are all priced at +4400. Bowyer actually won the spring race in 2018, a race that was postponed because of snow.
I said you’d see Keselowski’s name again and here it is. He won here in the spring and also in the spring of 2017. He’s got three straight top-five finishes in this race. It is no longer about the playoffs and about accumulating points for Keselowski. It’s about wins. He can drive more aggressively. He won’t have to worry about holding position. Keselowski has finished outside the top five just twice in his last nine starts here. At +770, with nothing to lose, he’s my favorite pick of the week.
It’s hard not to like Kyle Busch this week, but his price is kind of cost prohibitive. Maybe playing him in some matchups is a better route. It’s hard not to have a Hamlin ticket as well. He’s been locked in this season and has had an outstanding second half. With a price of around 5/1, it’s high enough to throw some money on him as a complement to Keselowski.