Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR: Team Penske Gears Up to Tackle Martinsville Speedway

Team Penske has won three of the past five races – including the last two – at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, home to Sunday’s First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) Monster Energy NACAR Cup Series Playoff race.

Penske’s Brad Keselowski has won two of those Martinsville races – including one of the most dominating victories in the 141-race history at the famous half-mile paperclip-shaped track.

He led 446-of-500 laps en route to the March trophy. Only four other times has a race winner led more.

And while Keselowski has fallen out of championship contention – missing the Playoff cutoff by a mere three points last week – certainly his two Playoff-eligible teammates – Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney – can take some positive energy from the Penske organization’s performance at Martinsville.

Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, is the defending Martinsville Playoff race winner, leading 309 laps en route to the victory last October. In the last five Martinsville races, at least two Team Penske drivers have finished among the top 10.

In March, Keselowski won the race and Blaney finished fourth. In this race last year, Logano won and Keselowski finished fifth. In Spring 2018, Blaney was third, Logano placed sixth and Keselowski finished 10th. In the 2017 Playoff race, Keselowski was fourth and Blaney was eighth. Keselowski won the Spring 2017 race and Logano was fourth.

Only five-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin (9.6) has a better average finish than Keselowski’s 11.3. Logano (13.4) and Blaney (14.0) are third and fourth best, respectively, among the eight Playoff drivers in that important statistic.

Logano, 29, has nine top-10 finishes in 21 Martinsville starts, including the 2018 Playoff win. He’s started from the pole position a series-best five times among active drivers – including this March – and has four top-10 finishes in the last six races.

Blaney, 25, has three top-10 finishes in seven Martinsville starts, including a fourth this March. He’s finished in the top-10 in three of the last four races including a career-best of third in 2018.

Kyle Busch could use a rally
It’s been 18 races since Kyle Busch last held a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy, but the four-race winner this season arrives at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway as the series championship leader again – four points up on six-race winner, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. and nine-points ahead of Sunday’s Kansas winner, another JGR teammate, five-race winner Denny Hamlin.

For most people in the garage and in the grandstands, Busch heads into this final three-race stretch to determine the Championship 4 drivers, a competitor “on the verge” of winning. Certainly, his past performance at these three upcoming tracks would confirm that.

Busch is the only driver among the eight with multiple Cup Series wins at all three venues – Martinsville (two), Texas (three) and ISM Raceway in Phoenix (three). For good measure and further consideration, Busch has won an additional nine times at Texas and 11 times at Phoenix in the Xfinity Series giving him double-digit trophies from those tracks.

At this week’s Martinsville half-miler, Busch has wins in Spring 2016 and in the 2017 Playoff race. He was runner-up three more times, including both spring races in 2017 and 2018. Most telling, perhaps, is that of his 17 top-10 finishes – 16 of them are top fives. When he’s on, he’s on.

He’s finished fifth or better in the last eight Martinsville races – including two victories and two second-place finishes. He led a race-best 274 laps and finished runner-up to Brad Keselowski in 2017. In the last seven races, Busch has led 937 laps – 65.8 percent of his 1,424 lap-total at Martinsville. Seven times he’s led at least 100 laps in a race. His average finish (12.0) is second only to five-time Martinsville winner Hamlin among the Playoff-eligible drivers.

“I really look forward to this round,’’ Busch said. “I feel like it’s our best round. We run well at all three of those places and we’ve won a few at Texas, we won Martinsville twice and Phoenix has been getting better for us too, winning the last two races there.

“We just need to continue to execute and do a good job and make sure that we mind our Ps and Qs.’’

Hamlin’s time to shine
Denny Hamlin earned his fifth win of the season Sunday at Kansas Speedway and he’s already turning in career statistical numbers, such as his 17 top fives and counting total. But there’s a stat he would like to own, and it comes with a trophy too – Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

The 38-year-old Virginian is undeniably the prince of the Martinsville short track among his eight remaining Playoff competitors. His five wins at the half-miler are most among the Playoff field. Only seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s nine Martinsville victories are more than Hamlin’s among this week’s entrants.

From 2009-10. Hamlin won three consecutive races at the historic half-miler – a feat done by only a handful of drivers, all champions: Richard Petty (1968-69), Cale Yarborough (1976-77), Darrell Waltrip (1988-89), Rusty Wallace (1994-95) and Jimmie Johnson (2006-07). Fred Lorenzen holds the all-time mark of four straight Martinsville wins between 1963-65.

In addition to his trophies, Hamlin has finished runner-up three times and third place on three more occasions. He’s led 100 laps or more five times at Martinsville. Statistically, when Hamlin’s good, he’s great. He led 502 of his 1,001 career laps out front at Martinsville in just two races – 296 laps in a runner-up finish in Spring 2009 and 206 laps in his Fall 2009 victory.

He has five top-10 finishes in the last seven Martinsville races and the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was runner-up to Joey Logano in last year’s Playoff race. He was fifth in March and boasts the best average finish (9.6) among Playoff drivers. His 20 top 10s at Martinsville are best among Playoff competitors and second only to Johnson’s 24 in this week’s starting field.

Truex still looking for first win at Martinsville
The season’s most prolific winner, six-time race winner Martin Truex Jr. goes into Martinsville (Va.) Speedway still looking for his first career victory at the notoriously finicky half-miler.

He has five top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 27 starts. And his recent work has been his best. He has finished eighth or better in seven of the last nine races – including the last four. He was runner-up to Kyle Busch in 2017 and went on to win his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship. He was third in the 2018 Playoff race and finished eighth this March.

Truex trails his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch by only four points in the championship standings heading into Martinsville.

“We know what we need to do,’’ Truex said. “Now it’s just a matter of going out and doing it. I know [crew chief] Cole [Pearn] and the guys have a good plan every week, so I’m confident we can do that. We have been fast, ran up front and led laps at all of these tracks in this round.

“All eight [playoff] guys would love to go into Martinsville this week and win the race to move on. That’s our goal, but we also feel good about the other tracks too.’’

And, he added, “We’ve got a great team. We just have to go out and execute.’’

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