Take a look at the set of races in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and you’re tempted to cross off the middle round at Texas Motor Speedway in two weeks.
On a 1.5-miler like Texas, we have an idea of what the likely outcome will be – a win for either Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, or perhaps Kevin Harvick and the Hendrick-powered Stewart-Haas Racing. They’re the power players on the power tracks.
So if the remainder of the Eliminator 8 – that’s Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, and Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards – want to advance to the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a win, their best shots lie at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway and the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway.
Martinsville kicks off the Eliminator Round this Sunday, and thus, a golden opportunity awaits Hamlin, Kenseth, Newman, and Edwards.
Based on past exploits at Martinsville, Hamlin would seem to have the best chance of this foursome in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500. The Virginia native usually performs well in front of his home fans (four wins, nine Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in 17 Martinsville Cup starts) and rarely bombs (just two career M’Ville finishes outside the Top 30).
However, his teammate Kenseth has also been much better at the Paperclip since his move to JGR in 2013. He finished second in this race last year to Jeff Gordon (Hendrick’s lone Chaser still standing), and this past spring at Martinsville, he ran sixth. Most importantly, the JGR duo won’t have to deal as much here with the power deficit that they’ve had on the big ovals vs. Penske and Hendrick.
Newman, like Hamlin, is a previous winner at Martinsville but since that spring 2012 triumph, he’s been up-and-down there with finishes of 11th, 31st, 38th, and 20th. But you can’t deny that he’s carrying some serious momentum right now with his four consecutive Top-10s. A fifth such result would not be a surprise here.
Then there’s Edwards, who has not finished in the Top-5 at Martinsville since a third in the fall of 2008. In the 11 starts he’s had there since, his best result has been a pair of eighths in 2010 (he ran 13th this past spring).
One is tempted to say that, based on his fifth at Kansas and eighth at Charlotte in the Contender Round, that he might have a better chance at Texas than Martinsville. On the other hand, he did pick up a short-track victory at Bristol back in the spring.
All of that said, the Eliminator Round points reset to 4,000 has these potential dark horses on equal footing with the big boys and with the same chance to lock themselves in for Homestead. That’s all they can ask for.