NASCAR

Johnson, Hamlin shine at Martinsville

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Clint Bowyer (15) , Jeff Gordon (24) , Jimmie Johnson (48) and Brad Keselowski (2)
Martinsville can be tough on top contenders in closing laps.
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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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The race at Martinsville Speedway this weekend features the only short track in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

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THAT'S THE WAY!

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To me, even though it’s a 500-lap race, the competition this weekend truly begins on Friday with a good, solid qualifying run because that dictates your pit-road selection, which is truly very important at this .526-mile track.

It keeps you from having to beat and bang your way to the front — you can kind of dictate the pace you run in the first half to two-thirds of that race. Then, even though there will probably be a fairly long green-flag run at the end, it’s almost like a road course. When you tell those guys there’s 10-to-15 laps to go, the wires start sparking inside those helmets and they start beating and banging.

You go back to the spring race there. What looked like it was going to be either a Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon win ended up with a caution with two (laps) to go and they all got to beating and banging so bad there on that green-white checkered that the cars looked like bowling pins sitting there in Turns 1 and 2.

Ryan Newman came out of the storm and won the race, AJ Allmendinger finished second and (both) Johnson and Gordon, who had looked like they each could win the race, didn’t even finish in the top 10.

You go there expecting Denny Hamlin and Johnson, the two guys chasing Brad Keselowski right now, to be the favorites. Collectively, the two of them have 10 wins there. They’ve won nine out of the last 12 collectively, so we know they’ll be the favorites.

This is a huge hurdle for Keselowski to step across.

He and his Penske Racing team need to go in there and qualify well. Their qualifying is going to get them in trouble because they only have one top-10 qualifying effort in the Chase. They have not qualified better than 20th in the last three races.

But Keselowski did end up with a solid run at Martinsville in the spring. He ended up finishing ninth and actually had a better run going there and was caught up in all that mess on the green-white-checkered.

Hamlin only finished three positions in front of him, in sixth. And Johnson finished outside the top 10.

If Keselowski can go up there and finish in the top 10, he may end up losing the points lead because Johnson is going to be fast. But if Keselowski can finish in the top eight or 10 there, I think they’re going to walk out of there with a huge sigh of relief.

He dodged a pretty big bullet at Kansas. That wreck with Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch with less than 100 to go, it’s almost like the seas parted for Keselowski coming through Turn 4. He even said on the radio, “Guys, that may have been a defining moment in this championship run.”

And he was right.

But what gets you in that position is a bad qualifying effort. And nobody knows this better than Brad and crew chief Paul Wolfe. They know their weakness is qualifying and that you can’t keep overcoming that week after week after week.

In the spring, when he finished ninth, one thing Keselowski did well there he qualified seventh and that just helped his race there. It helps everybody’s race.

It’s just so hard to overcome a bad qualifying effort at Martinsville that this weekend’s race begins on Friday.

Tagged: Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski

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