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Thursday, October 16, 2008
SCC Preview: TUMS QuikPak 500 at Martinsville

By Kevin Rounce
ESPN.com

There obviously has been a lot of talk about the Chase and who the contenders are for the championship, and with good reason. As Herm Edwards' way-too-often quoted line goes: "You play to win the game." Well, only 12 drivers have an opportunity to "win the game," as it were. There is another race that a couple of drivers are paying a whole lot of attention to. For the next five weeks, while Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle will wonder how the others finished in comparison to them, the two drivers battling it out for the coveted 13th spot in the standings, first spot below the Chase guys, will be doing the same thing.

David Ragan sits 86 points ahead of Kasey Kahne for the right to sit on the stage at the awards ceremony in New York and receive a check for a cool $1 million. In fact, Ragan has reeled off three straight top-10 finishes. Kahne has struggled recently, with a great finish at Charlotte being his only top-10 finish in the past six races. Both approach Martinsville with an eye on that 13th-place finish.

When you look at the respective drivers' history at Martinsville, it's a virtual dead heat. Ragan has top-15 finishes in the past two spring races at the flat track, including an 11th-place finish earlier this year. Kahne comes to Martinsville hoping his recent finishes of 15th and 17th are a sign he's turning things around on a track style he usually struggles on. Kahne has an average finish that is better than Ragan's at Martinsville, too. I'll call it a draw there. But if you factor in the way they've been running recently, the edge clearly goes to Ragan. That's why I placed Ragan 15th and Kahne 19th in my rankings this week. Of course, that's hardly a full endorsement of Ragan.

What will be interesting is to see where these two drivers are after Martinsville. They both are much more comfortable on mile-and-a-half, high-banked tracks such as Atlanta and Texas. Kahne has a win and five top-10s in nine Atlanta races; Ragan's average finish is 29.7, with no top-10s, in three races. At Texas, Kahne has a win and two top-10s in eight races, with an average finish of 22.0. Ragan has a 29.7 average finish and no top-10s in three races at Texas. So there is not just one interesting points race in NASCAR this season. If you find it hard to find a horse in the three-man race for the championship, there is another race that has the ability to capture your attention.

The favorites

Jeff Gordon (Market value: 21.2) is, in my eyes, the clear favorite this weekend. Just his history at the track, which borders on the absurd (seven wins and 25 top-10s in 31 starts), is reason enough. But he also has started to run well of late. He hit the wall not once but twice early on at Charlotte last week, and he still managed to come back and finish well. He has three top-10s in the past four races, and he'll be the man to beat again this weekend. Unfortunately, it's just a little too late for his title hopes.

Denny Hamlin (20.9) won the first race of the season at Martinsville and has five top-10s in his six career starts there. He loves flat tracks such as Martinsville and Pocono, and there's no reason to think he'll run any differently than he has his whole career on this style of track. Even better, he's affordable if you want to keep a Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Burton on your squad.

The next tier

Jimmie Johnson (24.2) hasn't had the best couple weeks at Talladega and Charlotte, respectively, and was probably a little lucky to finish as well as he did in those two races, considering where some of the better cars of the day finished. That said, he excels at Martinsville, with four wins and 12 top-10s in 13 starts. He has won three of the past four races at the site and is riding a string of seven straight top-10s. He'll be a factor again this weekend.

Jeff Burton (22.9) is coming off a pretty strong victory at Charlotte. He took no tires on his last pit stop and was still holding off cars that had made the "right call" in their service on tires. He has a win and 14 top-10s in 28 starts at Martinsville and has found that consistency he showed earlier in the season. I expect Burton and Johnson to trade top-10s the rest of the season.

The sleepers

The safer of the two sleepers this week is Juan Pablo Montoya (16.3). All three of his starts at Martinsville have resulted in top-16s, with one top-10. He is a great wheel man and can really handle a car when he doesn't need to have the horsepower to compete. It keeps him successful at road courses, and Martinsville has played to that strength. He should finish in the top 15 this weekend, and he has a great price for that kind of finish.

Regan Smith (14.2) is a little more of a long shot. He has a nice run going, with finishes of 23rd or better in four of his past six races on the season. He was right there at the finish at Talladega, a well-chronicled near miss. He has good numbers at Martinsville, including finishing 14th at the track earlier this year. If you want to take a shot at a cheap driver, Smith is worth a look.

Avoidance

My lowest-ranked Chaser is Kevin Harvick (21.1), but really he or Greg Biffle (22.4) are tough calls this week. Biffle has a poor track record at Martinsville, with only one top-10 in 11 starts. Harvick has just looked so poor the past couple weeks it's hard to know if he's just at tracks that don't agree with him or if he is in a slump. Of the two, I would feel safer with Harvick despite ranking Biffle higher. Biffle has top-10 upside, and overcame a long history of poor finishes at a flat track in Loudon, but he also has more downside. Be careful with your expectations on either of these drivers.

Rounce's roster

Jimmie Johnson (Locked in at 22.8): The top driver in the Chase. Not much else needs to be said.
Greg Biffle (Locked in at 21.5): He'll be great after this week.
Jeff Gordon (21.2): It's fun to have the favorite for the race.
Jamie McMurray (17.6): He's surprisingly good at this track.
Juan Pablo Montoya (16.3): One of my sleepers. We'll see if it pays off.