Chase Viewer's Guide: Round 6

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

At the halfway mark of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, the obvious championship favorites are Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, but a lot can happen this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. That's not hype or overselling the race to generate extra interest. Even though Gordon and Johnson have tremendous track records, this weekend's race will prove to be very physical. I worked the No. 24 pit several years ago, and while they had a great car as usual, he lost a power steering belt. Then there was the infamous race when a chunk of concrete went through the front of his car, so anything can happen at NASCAR's smallest track. At the end of the race at Lowe's Motor Speedway last week, Carl Edwards was sitting in his car happy for Ryan Newman, who appeared to be on the verge of breaking his winless drought. Then, with three laps left, Newman had a flat tire and he wrecked out of the event. That just shows how quickly things can turn around in NASCAR racing. Despite leading 2,300 laps at Martinsville, Gordon is vulnerable. He could get spun out by a lapped car or have a mechanical problem just as easily as anybody else in the field. Edwards won a race early in the Chase, but the paradox is as well as those guys are running, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford finished fifth at Lowe's and still lost ground in the title fight. But he and the other Chasers that are far behind the lead pack must do their absolute best and not worry about the leaders. Matt Kenseth has had horrendous luck, and Kevin Harvick has been plagued by flat tires. It's weird what's happened to the No. 29 car. But the misfortune that has plagued Harvick and Kenseth can happen to Gordon and Johnson in an instant, so the rest of the Chase field has to be ready.

Who to Watch

  • Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson: If you're going to do well at Martinsville, you're going to have to go through Gordon and Johnson. Carl Edwards said they're definitely the favorites going in, but they could have a problem just like anybody else. If anybody is going to make a move, they're going to have to deal with the No. 24 and the No. 48 this weekend.
  • Tony Stewart: Although Stewart only has one Martinsville victory, he's led almost 1,300 laps at the venue. Gordon paid him the ultimate compliment this week when he said he didn't even have to stub his toe for Tony to be right back in the Chase. On SPEED's The Chase is On, Stewart acknowledged the compliment, but said Gordon and Johnson are running great right now. Stewart has 32 career wins, and eight — or one-fourth — of the them have come at the next five tracks.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A driver that gets overlooked at this track, Dale Jr. has really improved here over the years. He was like any other young driver — not at ease when he started racing at the bullring — but he likes racing there.
  • Kurt Busch: Owner of a Martinsville win, Busch is another guy who has had some bad luck in the Chase. His performance has been a little bit better than what the numbers show.
  • What to Watch

  • Start up front to stay up front: Gordon's success at Martinsville is really predicated on always qualifying well. He's claimed six pole positions, including yesterday's result, and if he's not on the pole, he's up front. When he gets room to race, he doesn't lose track position because it's hard to pass. It sounds simplistic, but starting up front is important. It's so much easier to have track position than it is to get track position.
  • Braking points: During a long green-flag run, the brakes may be OK for a while, but at a certain point, you have to flip the switch and start saving them. If you wait until your brake pedal starts going to the floor, it's too late. If you're in a good position on the track, and your brakes are still good, that's when you need to ease up on the brakes and lift off the gas a little bit earlier getting into the corners. For example, Gordon crosses the start/finish line and starts to let off the gas pedal.
  • Slow down to stay fast: While you want to slow down, you want to keep your momentum so car continues turning left and stayed turned in the middle. Everybody talks about beating and banging, and you'll see that. But Martinsville's a finesse track that requires drivers to hit their marks.
  • Against a driver's will: The track is such a paradox because you've got to have patience. You've got to take care of your equipment. Race car drivers don't like to do those things. It goes against their nature.
  • Gamble for track position: If you don't start up front, you're going to have to gamble early in the race, maybe taking two tires, and hope you can get and hang onto track position. Several years ago, I worked the No. 55 pit, and the late Bobby Hamilton led a ton of laps for Andy Petree because he pitted out of sequence as the race stayed green. As pit stops cycled through, he fell back to the middle of the pack. It's a catch-22. If you don't qualify up in the front, and you have a great race car that's really rotating through the middle, you can drive a little more aggressively and make some moves. But you have to be careful at the same time.
  • Speed Mail Steve

    Pit Perspective

    When Carl Edwards ran his first Craftsman Truck race at Martinsville, he said he had to stay late after the race, but NASCAR didn't call him into the trailer. He had to apologize to just about every single driver in the field after hitting them. Brendan Gaughan was so mad at him. His nickname was "Curby" from hitting the curb on the inside of the track so often. Tony Stewart has a simple philosophy. He says, "Don't get wrecked at Martinsville." That's part of taking care of your equipment and brakes.

    Finish Line

    Keep your nose clean... literally. In years past at Martinsville, the nose of cars would get underneath the back of a car, jack up the rear wheels and spin out. With the Car of Tomorrow, we won't see as many spins because the front and rear bumpers line up. If you hit it, you're going to hit somebody solid. It's more important not to tear up nose because all of the duct work up front cools the brakes so you don't want to clog it up.

    NFL on FOX focus

  • Phoenix Cardinals at Washington Redskins, 1 p.m. ET on FOX: Although the Redskins blew a game they should have won last week against the Packers, the Redskins will beat the Cardinals at FedEx Field.

  • NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

    Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards

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