Playoff stretch continues
Before the Easter Break, we ran on the Bristol dirt track. Now, the odd stretch begins again with Saturday night’s race in Martinsville. See, we didn’t really discuss it before, but since the Las Vegas race last month, we’ve now had a stretch of five straight tracks that we’ve raced at or will race at (Saturday) that will be in the playoffs this Fall. Bristol though shouldn’t really count since we will race on the concrete, not the dirt, in September.
But, even if you take Bristol out and extend this topic into early May, you’ll have eight playoff tracks hosting races in a nine race span. With 10 playoff tracks available and having run eight of them during this stretch run, this could provide a lot of data for later.
Just how important is this stretch though? I mean we’re only seven races into the season, but with how close everything is and with most of these tracks not having any practice on them later in the year, these race weekends certainly matter for those with realistic championship aspirations.
Out of the 4 cutoff races in the playoffs (Bristol, ROVAL, Martinsville and Phoenix), we would have raced at three of them during this stretch. In fact, you get the entire opening round of the playoffs too.
That makes now as important as ever.
Can JGR improve?
Joe Gibbs Racing used to be among the top teams to beat annually in Martinsville. Last year, Martin Truex Jr. did win the spring race, but the rest of the drivers were out to lunch in both races. That’s odd in the sense that all of them were so good prior.
Denny Hamlin has three straight top fives at Martinsville prior to last season. Kyle Busch had eight in his last nine tries prior to 2020. Hamlin was 24th and 11th respectively last year while Busch was 19th and ninth.
Truex, led 122 laps in the November race but only finished 22nd.
Can they plus Christopher Bell get back to the front and challenge for a win with Penske and Hendrick?
So far, they’ve looked good in 2021. Truex and Bell have already won races and Busch is getting better and better with new crew chief Ben Beshore. Hamlin, has a top five in all but two races run.
They have data on which way not to go from last year. Did they make the necessary adjustments to improve this time around?
Can Harvick Improve?
No doubt about it, Martinsville kept Kevin Harvick out of the Championship 4 last year. Yes, he was struggling from the other two races in the Round of 8 too, but all he had to do was manage on the Virginia paperclip and he’d still be in.
All those playoff points and nine wins should have been more than enough for him just snag a top five and advance on. Instead, Martinsville bit him. He just wasn’t good. In fact, he’s not been good there for a while.
In his last 17 Martinsville starts, Harvick has scored just two top fives. He was only 15th and 17th respectively a year ago.
With knowing that this track is in the same spot in the same round of the playoffs again this Fall, how much emphasis did Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team put on Martinsville this past offseason? I mean, as long as you can make the Round of 8, all it takes is a win at Martinsville and you’re into the Championship 4. Mix that final round being at Phoenix, a place that has the same horsepower package and downforce levels as Martinsville, it pays to have success with this aero configuration.
Did that spark some changes made between 2020 and 2021 for the No. 4 Ford team?
Harvick can show off those hopeful upgrades under the lights this weekend. While he’s had a top 10 finish in all but two races run in 2021, he’s also only led just 17 laps too. He needs a solid run on Saturday night.
Bump and Run?
With having six winners in seven races to start the 2021 season, the playoff picture is getting some extra attention this early in the season. I mean, when does this trend stop? Martinsville is a place that I can see us getting another new winner. With that said, this is also a place to where you can use the bumper if you have to.
Does the second place car use the bumper on Saturday night with knowing how important a win is right now? I doubt we see 16 different winners, but with how this season has shaped up, you honestly never know. If you’re in the position in the end to win and all it takes is to shove the leader out of the way, do you do it?
The big story of the 2021 season has been just how many sleepers that we’ve seen win thus far. Guys like Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott have been shutout of victory lane. Does that trend keep up on Saturday night?
I have a feeling the sleeper winner streak may come to an end though. That’s too much talent listed about to come out of Martinsville without a win.
Keselowski has five straight top fives including nine in his last 10 tries on the paperclip. Hamlin has three top fives in his last five while Busch has eight top fives in his last 11. Elliott, meanwhile just won last Fall and has three top fives in his last four.
I think a winner comes from that group instead.