Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR
Martinsville Speedway marks the seventh stop of 10 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as it hosts Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500, the final short track race of the year. All eyes will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will make his return to the series after missing two weeks with concussion symptoms.
Earnhardt Jr. came out of the gate strong in initial practice, posting the second-fastest time. But even at less than two-tenths of a second slower than polesitter Jimmie Johnson, he’ll start 20th in the race itself, alongside Kurt Busch. Regan Smith, who replaced Earnhardt Jr. the past two weeks, will see a 105-race start streak come to an end on Sunday, but he’ll run the final two races for Phoenix Racing and join JR Motorsports for a full Nationwide Series slate in 2013 as a reward for his efforts.
Up front, Johnson and Brian Vickers will share the first row when the field comes to the green. Johnson knows this race is his best opportunity to make up his seven-point deficit to Brad Keselowski in the championship standings; not only has Johnson won six Martinsville races, four of which came in the Chase, Keselowski is starting 32nd and prone to the kind of beating and banging that characterizes most short track races.
As for Vickers, this is his final race of the 2012 season before returning to Michael Waltrip Racing for another limited schedule next year. In seven starts, he has three top-five finishes and contended for wins at both Bristol races and Sonoma. This is his last chance to impress a Nationwide team, likely Joe Gibbs Racing, enough to hire him for a full slate in that series next year.
But at the end of the day, it may be Denny Hamlin who eventually goes to victory lane. Hamlin, who starts fifth, has four Martinsville wins, including three in a row from October 2009 to October 2010. He’s led a significant portion of each of the past seven Martinsville races, and 20 points behind Keselowski, this race also represents an opportunity for him to tighten up the championship race.
- Chris Leone
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