Don't let the schedule fool you. There may be only one short track in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but those smallest of venues have very often played a very large role in determining who competes for the series championship, not to mention who wins it.
There's Bristol in late August, where the contenders and pretenders are often separated from one another like ingredients put through a sifter. There's Richmond in early September, the final regular-season event of the year, where the playoff field is ultimately determined. And there's Martinsville in October, so close to the end of the schedule you can almost see it, and a track that in recent years has emerged as the fulcrum on which the entire Chase swings.
It may well happen again Sunday, when NASCAR's premier series returns to Martinsville Speedway for a crucial race, given that eight-time track winner Jimmie Johnson now holds a four-point lead on Matt Kenseth, who's never won at the layout in southern Virginia. Until then, here are the 10 short-track races that have had the biggest impact on the Chase.
10. Junior's back: Bristol, 2004
The final events leading up that that inaugural Chase were kind of like a wild frontier for teams still figuring out the best way to approach the new playoff. The result was a stretch of races where it seemed like every lap mattered, chief among them the night event at the World's Fastest Half Mile in the late summer of 2004. Enjoying one of his best seasons, Dale Earnhardt Jr. essentially locked up a postseason bid by leading 295 laps en route to his first victory since suffering burns in a sports car crash only a few weeks earlier. Equally as important, Ryan Newman finished second to jump three spots into the 10th and (then) final Chase position, one he'd maintain two weeks later when that first playoff field was finalized.
9. Master disaster: Martinsville, 2012
Joe Gibbs Racing, and mechanical failures in the Chase. They've gone together a few times too often, one large reason the organization is still hunting its first premier-series championship since Tony Stewart moved on. One of the more painful episodes occurred in last year's Martinsville Chase race, which Denny Hamlin entered 20 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. On one of his best tracks, the JGR driver was looking to make a big move. It never happened -- a bolt broke off his master electrical switch, the power to his car cut off, and he finished 33rd to fall 49 points back. Meanwhile, Keselowski finished sixth to stick close to winner Jimmie Johnson, putting himself in position to win the title over the following three weeks.
8. Keselowski rises, Bristol, 2011
Speaking of Keselowski, the night where the Penske Racing ace truly cemented himself as a championship contender came a year earlier at a different short track. His victory at Bristol in August of 2011 capped a five-week surge that saw the driver of the Blue Deuce rise from 23rd to 11th in the Sprint Cup standings. During a stretch where several other playoff hopefuls stumbled, Keselowski led the final 80 laps and left no doubt. It was a win that effectively locked up Keselowski's first career berth in the Chase, which he would ultimately make that year as a Wild Card. But it also heralded much bigger things -- like the title run the Penske driver would embark upon one season later.
7. Smoked out: Richmond, 2006
The year before, Stewart had kept a torrid late-summer stretch going into the Chase, and become still the only champion to claim the title without winning a race in the playoff. The next year, he found himself attached to another first, albeit a more dubious one -- the first reigning champion to miss the Chase the following year. Stewart entered that 2006 regular-season finale in eighth place in points, but could never get his car working at Richmond and finished 18th. Meanwhile Kasey Kahne finished third, and edged Stewart for the final berth by 11 points. "That's unbelievable," Mark Martin called it, and many agreed. It would remain the only year a reigning champion missed the playoff until Keselowski did the same this season.
6. Tipping point: Martinsville, 2008
At the height of their five-year championship run, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team often seemed to have the competition mentally beaten before they even showed up at the race track. That was certainly the case in 2008, when Johnson obliterated the competition in a Chase that was very nearly locked up with a week still left in the season. The tipping point was Martinsville, which Johnson entered with a 69-point lead over the field under the previous format. It was one of those "max points" day Johnson would become famous for, a race where he led 339 laps and dominated everyone else. By the end, his edge had swollen to 149 points, the rest of the season was academic, and lone three-time champion Cale Yarborough would soon have company.
5. Narrow margin: Richmond, 2012
You want drama? Rain that pushed everything until the wee hours of the morning. A last-gasp attempt by Jeff Gordon that appeared destined to fall short. An ill-timed pit decision by Kyle Busch's team that turned everything around. And suddenly there was Gordon, in the midst of one of his most trying seasons, edging Busch by three points for the final Chase berth. Busch seemed in command of that spot for most of the night, while Gordon fell a lap down. But under caution for rain, Busch stayed out while everyone else pitted for fuel. Then there was a lug nut problem. Meanwhile the handling of Gordon's car improved, and the four-time champion surged to a runner-up race finish that netted the most unlikely playoff berth of his career.
4. The Iceman falleth: Martinsville, 2006
They were calling Jeff Burton "the new Iceman" in that fall of 2006, because the veteran driver was overcoming everything the opposition could throw at him. Enjoying the best season of his career, Burton finished third at Charlotte to carry a 45-point lead to Martinsville, his home track. Yet the Virginia native made it just 217 laps before the engine in his No. 31 car let go, plunging him to a 42nd-place finish that would prove devastating to his championship hopes. Burton left Martinsville that day fifth in the standings, 48 points behind. Meanwhile, Johnson scored a victory that anchored an amazing run of five straight finishes of second or better, and propelled him to a huge comeback that netted his first career title.
3. Night of scandal: Richmond, 2013
You want more drama? Newman streaking toward an victory that would clinch a Chase berth. Gordon maintaining a slight edge over Joey Logano, who was two laps down. Clint Bowyer spinning to bring out a caution that changed everything, Brian Vickers pitting unexpectedly, and suddenly Logano and Martin Truex Jr. claiming the final two playoff spots. It seemed too good to be true -- and it was. NASCAR later charged Michael Waltrip Racing with manipulating the race, levying record penalties that knocked Truex out of the Chase in favor of Newman. Days later in the wake of more alleged impropriety, Gordon was added as well. What should have been a glorious night for NASCAR instead became a scandalous one, and the consequences continue to be felt today.
2. Pulling a Mayfield: Richmond, 2004
To this day, it's still referred to as "pulling a Mayfield." It's what Newman may well have done this year, had Bowyer's spin not intervened -- win the final regular-season race to get into the Chase. It's been done only once, that prior to the inaugural Chase in 2004, in a time before the field was expanded from 10 to 12 drivers and there were Wild Cards to shoot for. No, back then it was top 10 or bust, and Jeremy Mayfield had only one way to get there: win Richmond. He entered the night 14th in the standings, but led 151 laps and was assured of the victory when Kurt Busch ran out of gas with eight to go. Everything that needed to happen did, and he didn't just make the Chase, he made it in ninth place, with room to spare. "I couldn't believe it," he said that night. Neither could we.
1. Mind games: Martinsville, 2011
It wasn't just the fact that Stewart won that day on the half-mile track, it was the way in which he did it -- with a swagger that carried right over into his post-race interviews, and helped him seize control of a Chase where he was still trailing at the time. Although he'd won the opening two playoff races, Stewart came to Martinsville fourth in points, 19 behind leader Carl Edwards. But he overtook Johnson with three laps remaining to win, on the reigning champion's best track, no less. He got help when Matt Kenseth was wrecked by Vickers, and Keselowski finished well back in the pack.
Suddenly, two of the drivers that had been ahead of him were out of the way. Edwards managed a respectable ninth on a track that was far from his favorite, and took an eight-point lead over Stewart. But you'd never have known it by the challenge Stewart issued in Victory Lane. "Carl Edwards had better be real worried," he said. "That's all I've got to say. He's not going to sleep for the next three weeks." The mind games continued as Stewart won three of the season's final four races, including the finale at Homestead that gave him the title over Edwards in a tiebreaker. His words at Martinsville would prove prophetic, indeed.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Martinsville Speedway