Brad Keselowski won two races last year in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but the performance that ultimately earned him the championship might have come in an event where someone else reached Victory Lane. Needing something close to a career-best finish at a track where his nearest rival was essentially a sure thing, Keselowski managed just that -- and in the process, kept pace at a half-mile facility that's emerged as the swing point in the sport's playoff.
Jimmie Johnson may have been the one spraying champagne and basking in confetti after last season's Chase race at Martinsville Speedway, but it was the sixth-place run by Keselowski -- his career best finish -- that was as clutch a performance as we witnessed over the course of that title hunt. Johnson is unquestionably the master there, with now eight wins and a ridiculous average finish of 5.3 at the southern Virginia layout. Seeing the No. 48 car in contention at Martinsville is every bit as reliable as the Ridgeway grandfather clock the track awards to its winners.
All of which is why it was so key for Keselowski to mitigate what seemed a sure-fire points loss -- and toward that end, it was mission accomplished in a race he would finish trailing the five-time champion by a mere two points. Now the year is different, and one of the players has changed, but the venue and the objective remain the same. For Matt Kenseth to win this championship, he too must weather a short track that once again looms monumentally large, and a primary opponent who's better there than anyone else racing today.
Forget Talladega, its whimsical aerodynamics and roulette-wheel unpredictability aside. The real game-changer in the Chase has often been Martinsville, which has made a habit of bringing the title picture into tighter focus. It was at Martinsville where Jeff Burton blew an engine, and Johnson won to key an unthinkable comeback in 2006. It was at Martinsville where Johnson won to break the back of the competition in 2008. It was at Martinsville where Tony Stewart won and issued his challenge to Carl Edwards in 2011. It was at Martinsville where Denny Hamlin's title hopes went out with his dead master switch in 2012.
And it was at Martinsville last season where Keselowski recorded the hold he had to have, one that loomed even larger after Johnson won again the next week at Texas Motor Speedway. Kenseth is older and savvier, but he's still up against history that would label him the underdog even though he gave up the Chase lead only last week. Johnson has 14 career victories at the four remaining tracks. Kenseth has four victories at the four remaining tracks, none of them at Martinsville. Now that Kenseth is down four points in the standings, the little paperclip is again poised to play a huge role.
Now, Kenseth does have a resident Martinsville ace in the form of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin, a four-time winner whose notebook will surely be available to the No. 20 team this week. And Kenseth is coming off one of his best Martinsville performances ever, a spring race where he led career-high 96 laps before a late pit stop and a tight car dropped him back to a 14th-place result. Even so, on a day where Johnson won and led the most laps, Kenseth was still outscored by 17 points. Back in April, it was a mere hiccup. That happens again Sunday, it's a disaster.
"You don't know what's going to happen," Kenseth said. "It's been a fun year, because (JGR) has made me run a lot better at tracks where we usually don't run good at. Hopefully, Martinsville will be one of those."
Can Kenseth win at Martinsville? Absolutely. The guy is a former champion who came up racing late models on Wisconsin short tracks, and this season has emerged as a threat every week. But historically Martinsville has been one of those places -- not unlike, say, Darlington or a road course -- that drivers either take to immediately, or spend a career trying to figure out. The NASCAR Nationwide Series has raced there just once since 1994, and its flat design means tactics from other similar-sized tracks rarely translate.
It all plays into Johnson's edge. "They've got a notebook that's like a dream notebook when they go there, and Jimmie's very good at that race track," said Joey Logano, who added he's studied video of the No. 48 car at Martinsville, trying to find ways to get his vehicle to look like Johnson's on the 0.526-mile layout. "They're able to tie all that together and run very fast there."
No wonder 11 Sprint Cup drivers, Logano included, tested at the facility for two days earlier this month. "There's no other Martinsville," Burton, a native of the region, said at the test. "There's no other track where we can really take the information we learn here and go somewhere else with. When you see people here testing, they're looking for an advantage at this race track."
Johnson, with eight wins in his back pocket, didn't test at Martinsville. Neither did Kenseth, for whom the spring race likely offered a solid starting point. Both of them are testing this week at Texas, home to the next race on the schedule, and site of perhaps the most galvanizing moment of the 2012 Chase when Johnson and Keselowski went wheel-to-wheel and fender-to-fender over the final laps, producing a 1-2 finish that set the stage for the playoff's endgame.
But to get there, they had to get through Martinsville first. Johnson's lead is a slim one, to be sure. But given the success he's enjoyed at the next three venues, it's not difficult to imagine the maximum potential for that No. 48 team over the next three weeks. Martinsville is Johnson's absolute best track, which is saying something given the guy has five titles and 65 race wins. So all eyes will be on Kenseth, who'll likely need a career performance similar to the one the eventual champion produced last season, to ensure that grandfather clock in Victory Lane does not toll for him.
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