Halloween week at Martinsville? Spooky
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Rain, particularly on Halloween weekend, can bring out the craziness at a racetrack.
Take Friday at Martinsville Speedway, for example. We had Jeff Gordon talking about the time he dressed up for Halloween as a "one night stand" with a lampshade on his head, and Brad Keselowski talking about the many "ethical lapses" of the past weekend at Talladega.
We had Dale Earnhardt Jr. dissecting how NASCAR has leveled the playing field way too much, what he'd do to fix the two-car tandem racing at Daytona and Talladega, and how he'd dress up as Cale Yarborough if he were at a NASCAR-themed Halloween party.
We had Matt Kenseth joking about the pulled punch Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards threw at him here four years ago, and Kevin Harvick discussing how far he'd stretch the rules to win a title.
It got so crazy that we had Jimmie Johnson talking about how he still has a chance to win a sixth straight championship.
Is there a full moon behind those clouds?
But when we all settle into reality on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), when the bad weather is gone and we're back to racing, we'll be talking about how the Chase has come down to five drivers.
With four races remaining in the Sprint Cup season, there are four drivers within 26 points of leader Edwards, who has a 14-point advantage over second-place Kenseth. Nobody outside the top five has rallied to win the championship under the Chase format this deep in the playoff, but just to be nice we'll say that Kyle Busch at 40 points down in sixth place has a shot.
We won't be so kind as to say that Johnson has a chance in seventh place, 50 points down. That the leader of the Chase with four races remaining has won it all in five of the seven years bodes even worse for Johnson or anybody else behind Edwards.
The only two times a driver not in first with four to go won it all was in 2006 and 2007, and both times Johnson was in the top three. So we're being kind to include the fourth- and fifth-place drivers in this scenario.
That the driver who did come from behind to win was nicknamed "Superman" also should be considered. Edwards has shown he can do a backflip off a car door, that he can fly as he and his car did at Talladega a few year ago, and he does have abs of steel, but nobody is comparing him to the "Man of Steel."
Not yet, anyway.
But to keep this interesting we'll break down what you can expect from the top five drivers as they prepare for Sunday's race at this half-mile, paper clip-shaped track and the rest of the Chase. We'll do this because, as Harvick convinced us during the never-ending rain delays, "It's a long way from over."
As crazy as that may sound, he's right when you look at all the numbers:
1. Carl Edwards (points leader)
He says he's nervous about Martinsville, and he should be with no wins, only four top-10s and a 23rd-place finish here in the spring. He should be nervous about Texas, as well. Despite three wins at TMS, he's finished 19th or worse in two of the past three races there.
He was 28th at Phoenix in the spring, as well.
But Edwards is comfortable with the points lead and seems to be having a good time with it, something Denny Hamlin wasn't having in the final few races last season, when he lost a sizable lead to Johnson.
He also got a break from the rain, earning the pole for Sunday because qualifying was washed out. That's huge for a driver whose average starting position here is 18.2.
"It's pretty blissful for me right now," Edwards said. "Early on, maybe even in 2008, I felt that being in the points lead had some sort of pressure. It was an unfamiliar feeling."
Edwards has a comfort level that'll make him tough to beat if he escapes Martinsville without catastrophe. I'll go so far as to say if he has a 10-point lead or better it's his to lose.
And by the way, if Edwards were going to a NASCAR-themed Halloween party, he would dress as NASCAR president Mike Helton.
"You could get the good hair wig, the good mustache," he said. "And hey, you instantly get more sway than any driver costume there right away, so that's good."
2. Matt Kenseth (-14)
This would be Hamlin's pick if the points were even now. He'd be mine, too, based on the way he's run the past month.
Unfortunately for Kenseth, it's not even.
In the 2003 Cup champion's favor, he finished sixth at Martinsville in the spring, and his average finish at next week's stop, Texas, is 9.0 with a first and second in his past two starts. He also seems as loose or looser than any of his fellow contenders, joking about two-car drafts at Martinsville that never will happen.
Even Edwards realizes his teammate is a threat, saying, "He could literally go win three out of the next four races and dominate this thing."
No punches pulled there.
So what is Kenseth's main concern for Sunday?
"The pink curbs," Kenseth said of the color the track painted the inside curbs to promote breast cancer awareness. "That's gonna be tough to look at for 1,000 times."
See, he's loose.
And maybe a bit crazy.
3. Brad Keselowski (-18)
We talk about wild-card tracks such as Talladega and Martinsville, but Keselowski may be the wild card of the field. He doesn't have much history on any of the tracks and, as we've seen since his summer resurgence, what little history he has doesn't matter.
For the record, Keselowski's average finish of 21.3 for the final four tracks is by far the worst of the contenders.
For the record, he doesn't care.
"The sport itself, especially the media, relies a lot on previous history at tracks to kind of garner who they think is going to be the guy to beat," Keselowski said. "We just don't have a lot of stats. We don't have a lot of past history. That can be very confusing for a lot of people.
"It's also good. It's somewhat of an advantage and strength of our team that we don't have those because we don't come in with any preconceived notions. We come into each race and feel like we have a shot at winning it. We don't look back at stats and say, 'We'll never run good here.' I don't see it as a disadvantage. I kind of like it."
I like Keselowski's chances, too -- as my dark horse.
4. Tony Stewart (-19)
Like Edwards, the two-time Cup champion has to be worried about Martinsville, where he's finished 34th, 24th and 26th in his past three starts. A repeat Sunday will bury his chances.
But when you ask other drivers who they'd keep an eye on for the title, most have Stewart on their list.
Smart. Stewart's average finish at the last four tracks is 12.8, second only to Harvick's 12.7. He is the only driver to win the title under NASCAR's old points system and the Chase.
Plus, he knows how to stay focused -- as he has reminded us over and over and over and over -- on his performance and not the performance of everybody else.
He also had arguably the best answer when asked what he'd wear to a NASCAR-themed Halloween party.
"I'm not going to go as one of the Busch brothers," Stewart said. "Not 'cause I don't like 'em. Just 'cause I'm not sure that it's a popular "
5. Kevin Harvick (-26)
When you go beyond average finishes at the last four Chase tracks and look at what the Richard Childress Racing driver has done at those tracks recently, the numbers are hard to beat.
Harvick won the spring race at Martinsville, finished 20th at Texas but was sixth and seventh in the two previous starts, was fourth at Phoenix and third at Homestead.
Maybe that's why he says it's far from over, although 26 points will be tough to make up unless Edwards has a bad day, which you have to figure he will, since no Chase winner has survived 10 races without one.
Harvick didn't seem to mind that Chad Knaus told Johnson to damage the back end of his car if he won at Talladega, so you know how hungry he is.
"It's one of those things where you do what you have to do to try to win the championship and you suffer the consequences later," Harvick said. "For me, I am all for doing whatever you have to do to win the championship."
It wouldn't be crazy to see Harvick do just that.
By the way, when Gordon was a "one night stand" for Halloween, his wife was a note on the nightstand.
Asked what the note said, Gordon replied, "It said she had a good time."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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