By Jared Turner
After Sunday’s wild and controversial finish to the Chase Contender Round elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway, it’s on to Martinsville Speedway for Race One of the Chase Eliminator Round.
Eight drivers will arrive at Martinsville, the Sprint Cup Series’ shortest track, deadlocked atop the standings with 4,000 points apiece.
Those drivers – Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – are the only drivers still in the hunt for the Sprint Cup title with four races remaining.
So who has the edge among the final eight men?
While the last few races suggest Logano is the odds-on favorite to go all the way to Homestead-Miami Speedway and capture the sport’s top prize, the Team Penske driver is not the favorite to leave Martinsville with one of the fabled track’s vintage grandfather clocks.
In fact, Logano is one of five championship contenders who have never gone to Victory Lane at the .526-mile track.
Of the eight drivers still in the hunt for the crown, only Gordon, Harvick and Kurt Busch have pulled into Victory Lane at the venerable paperclip-shaped oval.
So while Logano, a winner of three consecutive races, is undoubtedly the hottest driver in the sport, he’ll have his hands full at Martinsville, where’s come up short in each of his 13 starts.
Even so, the Connecticut native is understandably confident heading into the first of three races in the Eliminator Round from which the championship field will be trimmed from eight drivers to four.
“We got momentum, that’s for sure,” Logano said after his first ever Talladega win. “This team has just been firing all eight right now. It’s amazing. All these different types of racetracks we’ve been able to win at this season and how hard everyone keeps fighting. We want the big trophy at the end of the year. We want to win every trophy in between, but we want the big one at the end of the season. What we’ve shown here this last round is a big deal, but the fact of the matter is we’re back to zero again.
“What we do have going for us that other teams don’t have is a lot of confidence.”
Gordon, whose eight wins at Martinsville are tied with Jimmie Johnson for most among active drivers, sees Sunday as a golden opportunity to get to Victory Lane and earn an automatic berth in the Championship Round in his final season.
“Oh my gosh,” Gordon said after coming home third at Talladega, where he competed in his final restrictor-plate race. “I just cannot believe … this season has been a crazy season for us. But since the Chase started the attitude of this team, the momentum and the execution the things that we weren’t doing earlier in the year we are doing them all right now at the right time. I never thought in a million years I would be looking forward to coming to Talladega to advance through, but boy I did today. What a great race car, great race team. Watch out; we have something for them these next three or four races.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that a Chase driver will win at Martinsville. Among those knocked out of the Chase at Talladega was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is Gordon’s teammate and the winner at Martinsville last fall.
“We’ve got to try to win another race before the year is out, have some fun,” Earnhardt said. “Martinsville is coming up. I’m excited about that. We’ve got a great team. This is my first year with Greg (Ives, crew chief) and we are just going to get better. He is just going to get better. We’ve got a lot to look forward to.”