|ESPN.com: 2009||[Print without images]|
Take Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, then add in Denny Hamlin, and you have the "big three" at Martinsville. Their stats simply dwarf the competition.
In the past 12 races on the half-mile paper clip, those three have won all but two. Johnson has made five trips to Victory Lane over that span, Gordon four and Hamlin won the Goody's 500 a year ago. The only other drivers to claim a checkered flag during that time are the retired Rusty Wallace in the spring of 2004 and Tony Stewart, who won in 2006.
Johnson finishing up front at Martinsville has become as reliable as death, taxes and everyone hitting me up for Bristol night race tickets. He limped home 35th the very first time he ran there, but since has 13 straight top-10s with 10 top-5s and five victories. Lately, he's dominated NASCAR's slowest track, winning four of the past five with a streak of seven consecutive top-5s. Not to mention, he's led 1,174 laps in the past six Martinsville outings.
When it comes to getting around the track and getting through its concrete turns, Johnson had a good teacher in Gordon. The past 12 times Gordon has traveled to southern Virginia, the DuPont Chevy hasn't finished outside the top 10 with 11 top-5s and four wins. He hasn't won lately, but does have a runner-up in each of the past three seasons. He's also led a lap in 11 of the past 12 races there, making him almost a sure bet to pick up at least five bonus points. For his career at Martinsville, Gordon's led 2,613 laps.
Hamlin hasn't been around as long. He ran his first Sprint Cup race at Martinsville in the fall of 2005, finishing eighth. The next spring he crashed and finished 37th. Since then, his worst finish has been sixth with an average finish of 3.4 as he led three races for a total of 235 laps.
Given those numbers, can you picture anybody other than one of these guys winning Sunday? It could happen, but what are the odds? This could be the opportune time for Gordon to end his losing drought, which has now stretched to 46 races, especially if Mother Nature washes out qualifying Friday, and that's the current forecast. If that happens, NASCAR, now going by the 2009 owner standings for the first time this year, would award point leader Gordon the pole and the first pit stall, which is worth its weight in gold on the tightest pit road, by far, on the circuit. Hamlin would get to select his pit stall eighth and Johnson ninth. That could prove to be a problem.
Looking at the SCC values going into Martinsville from 22 and up, that's where you'll find the big three. Denny Hamlin is the cheapest at 22.2 with Jimmie Johnson (23.6) next followed by Jeff Gordon (24.0), who is the highest-valued driver at the moment. Gordon still has a little more room to rise in value, but time is running out so you might want to think about grabbing him now. Kevin Harvick (22.4) could have a good run at Martinsville, but would you take him over Hamlin, let alone Johnson and Gordon? The only guy up top who could beat the fearsome trio is Kyle Busch (23.8), but Martinsville was a total disaster for him in 2008.
From 18.0 to 22.0, there could be a little help. Sixth a year ago followed by a runner-up finish in the fall, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21.9) might be worth a thought, but with such a high price you might need to drop down and think about Mark Martin (18.8), who finally put a full race together last week. Also remember, this is same team Casey Mears finished in the top 10 with in both Martinsville races last year. Clint Bowyer (20.6) also has top-10s in the past three races on the half-mile track.
Last Sunday I picked Ryan Newman (17.3) and Juan Pablo Montoya (17.3) as my "floor picks" and they responded with seventh- and ninth-place finishes respectively. I think Newman can have another strong run Sunday and Montoya has a good chance of a strong finish at Martinsville because drivers charge into corners there and stand on the brakes like road course drivers, which plays to the Colombian driver's strength. Montoya finished in the top 15 in both Martinsville races last season and he's driving better equipment with more horsepower than he did then. A.J. Allmendinger (15.7) also deserves a thought or two this week.
Debit not credit
At the top of the SCC values, Carl Edwards (23.8) and Kyle Busch (23.8) just don't feel like safe picks to me. I think I would also stay away from Dale Jr. because the price is too high for a possible top-10 run. Tony Stewart (21.3) gets around Martinsville pretty good, but wasn't so good at Bristol. Jeff Burton (20.6) has been so up and down lately it's got me a little nervous. Down near the bottom a lot of folks are going to be tempted to take Marcos Ambrose (15.4) after his outstanding run at Bristol, but this is his first trip to Martinsville and this place eats up rookies. Plus, if qualifying is rained out Ambrose could get the short straw when his crew chief picks a pit stall.
When I started looking at the Martinsville numbers racked up by Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin, I thought about going off the reservation by putting all three on my team this week. I already had Gordon and Hamlin from Bristol. So, I dropped Kurt Busch and added Johnson. The top three in a race could max out at 540 and I think they can do that. I kept Ryan Newman, penciling him in for a 10th and 134 points. Then, with little cap space left, I dropped Martin Truex Jr. and added his teammate Aric Almirola (14.0). I'm figuring, OK, praying like a mantis, he'll finish 20th as he did last fall and add 103 points. That means I'm figuring on scoring 770 this Sunday.
Mark Garrow covers fantasy racing for ESPN.com.