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Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Martinsville preview: Johnson, Gordon own track

By Mark Garrow

Okay, it's five races down in the new ESPN Stock Car Challenge in conjunction with and we have a new leader, DW (and not Boogety DW), who nailed down 816 points at Bristol picking Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. That was pretty close to the week's top score of 826. Man, it's really tight at the top of the overall standings with DW leading Lions Rule by only four points, 3742 to 3738. And only eight points from the number one spot are Va Fangoo Racing, Philadelphia Clones, and Redneck Racing. All of the current top 10 are averaging more than 740 points a race and that, my friends, is pretty sporty.

The "Guru" had mixed results at Bristol. In the Jayski Junkies league stumbled home with a 607 when Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya got wiped out. Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Burton kept it from being a total disaster as I fall from 18th to 79th in my league.

However, in the Virginia Connection league I also play in, Guru went to No. 1 with a 736, which would have been much better if Hamlin didn't have problems. I also had Burton and Johnson on that team but also picked up Dale Jr. and Matt Kenseth.

On Sunday morning's chat, we once again warned people away from my preview top choice because crew chiefs didn't have a lot to say good about Kyle Busch. He finished top-10, but was so lucky to do that. Still, he never challenged to win his third race in a row at Bristol and I feel good about making the recommendation to dump Shrub. I also picked Jimmie Johnson as the man to beat in the race. I also had Montoya and Martin in my top-6 picks and they were on way to top-5 runs before being crashed. Hamlin was another top pick and got as high as sixth before he had problems. Matt Kenseth delivered with a top-5 finish and, ranked 7th, Kurt Busch led 10 times for 278 laps. In Group "B", again talked up Harvick and Burton and they delivered. Also was high on what Dale Jr. could get done and he wound up 7th. Marcos Ambrose also got a lot of play and looked good until he had a problem. Plus, we got some insight on AJ Allmendinger , who finished a respectable 17th after running in the top 10.

NOTES: In 2009, Denny Hamlin easily scored more points than any other driver during the six short track races at Bristol, Martinsville, and Richmond, averaging more than 170 points a race on tracks shorter than one mile. Hamlin scored 45 more points than Kyle Busch in those half dozen events with Mark Martin, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon rounding out the top-5. The rest of the top-10 "short trackers" last season were Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Tony Stewart. 11-15 Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Even though Bristol and Martinsville are two totally different race tracks, drivers who were strong in Tennessee are likely to be strong again this weekend in southern Virginia. A year ago, five of the drivers who finished top-7 at Bristol turned around and did the same thing at Martinsville, with nine drivers top-15 in both events.

Group A

I would like to start out by talking about someone other than Jimmie Johnson, but when it comes to Martinsville the boys in the white lab coats would lock me up as a nut job if I didn't. The Lowes Chevrolet driver is not only the race's defending winner, but has been to victory lane in five of the last seven Martinsville shootouts. Johnson finished 35th in his first appearance on the tough, half-mile track, but since then as put up some unbelievable numbers. In the ensuing 15 races, he's scooted home top-10 every single time with 12 top-5 finishes, which include six checkered flags. Not to mention, his worst finish in the last nine at Martinsville is fourth place and over that span has led nearly 1400 laps.

Another guy with Martinsville stats that will blow your mind is teammate Jeff Gordon, who's a seven-time winner on the flat, half-mile oval. The 38-year-old driver has 14 top-10 finishes in a row, which includes four victories. Plus, Gordon is working on a string of 10 straight top-5 finishes that include two wins. Over that span, his average finish is a mere 2.9 and has led 1631 laps.

The only other driver to break into victory lane over the last 14 races is Denny Hamlin and he's won two of the last four. In the two he didn't win, Hamlin wound up 2nd and 5th. He's working on a Martinsville streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes, six of which were top-5 with the two victories we just talked about. In the last two races where he was the runner-up last spring and the winner when they returned in the fall, Hamlin has led 502 of a possible 1000 laps.

You should also give some thought to Tony Stewart. He was third a year ago and backed it up with a ninth place finish in the fall. He's been top-10 in the last nine Martinsville races with a win with a runner-up and five additional top-5 finishes. On the negative side, he hasn't led a lap in the past five races.

Also keep an eye out for Mark Martin. He didn't run Martinsville in 2007 and '08, but returned in 2009 with finishes of 7th and 8th. The Arkansas driver won this race in 1992 and again in 2000.

Some drivers you need to think about staying away from in the Tums 500 or they might upset your stomach, and your team, are Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and this has been a miserable track for Kasey Kahne.

Group B

This is not as cut and dried as it has been in the opening Sprint Cup races of 2010, mainly because Richard Childress Racing has struggled at Martinsville Speedway as of late. That means Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton are not "automatic: as they have been for several of the early events.

I like Jamie McMurray a lot. Not only is he coming off a strong performance at Bristol, but was top-10 in both Martinsville races in 2009, finishing 10th and sixth. In last nine Martinsville outings has been top-10 six times, but on the three occasions he wasn't, JMac was 19th, 32nd, and 38th.

Let's also give a little love to Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who's coming off strong seventh-place finish Sunday in the Food City 500. I also bet you didn't know that Junior has been top-10 in the past four sring races at Martinsville and was the runner-up the fall back in 2008. In the last six races, Junior has also led over 300 laps.

Even though this is hardly his or RCR's best track, you still need to have Harvick on your radar because in the opening five races his worst finish is 11th, which happened last week at Bristol. That's also where he finished a year ago at Martinsville and followed that up with a tenth place in October. The Shell Chevy driver has averaged a tenth place finish over the past five in Martinsville.

Jeff Burton in the meantime had a pair of 15th place finishes last year so there is potential for him to do a little better and finish top-10. He seems to run better in the spring at Martinsville. In 2007, Burton finished sixth and in '08 was third.

If you'd like to have some fun taking on the "Guru", just join up to play in the "Jayski Junkies" league or "Virginia Connection". Two other things to remember; our race day chat from Martinsville is this Sunday morning at 10:00 eastern and you can also follow my "Twitters" at @GuruGarrow!