We are now halfway through the Chase for the Cup and final segment of the Stock Car Challenge. While Jeff Gordon is now in a prime position to win his fifth championship and Jimmie Johnson remains within striking distance of being able to repeat as champion, nothing is certain. Strong runs from Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart could start to tighten things up, especially if Gordon or Johnson runs into bad luck this week.
History, however, suggests the two leaders in the standings should be among the best bets to win at Martinsville this week. Johnson might have a greater sense of urgency, now trailing Gordon by 68 points, but you can bet on a fine finish from Gordon even if he doesn't win. Gordon needs to continue delivering strong finishes if he truly wants to wrap up the Nextel Cup title over the next few races.
Martinsville's .526-mile surface presents challenges for even the best drivers. It has become notorious for its tight turns and unforgiving flatness. "As a driver, the discipline that you need in the braking zone and getting through the center of the turns is very, very important there," Johnson said. "Martinsville is definitely a race track where you have to roll the center really well and use little to no brake at all," added Denny Hamlin.
VICTORY LANE SPECIAL
Jimmie Johnson (23.1): Back in April, Johnson edged Gordon by a .065 second and needs to beat out his Hendrick Motorsports teammate again this week to stay in the thick of the title race. It was Johnson's second consecutive win and third victory overall at the site, and he has seven top-5 finishes and 11 top-10 showings in 12 career races at Martinsville. He has an average finish of 6.6 at the site. In his past five Martinsville races, he ranks third among all current drivers in average running position (7.9), fastest laps run (224), and laps in the top 15 (2,093, or 97.3 percent). He has finished in the top-
5 in his last four races at Martinsville.
Jeff Gordon (24.2): While he might hold back a bit rather than get in another tight battle for a win, Gordon is certainly destined to finish at the top of the pack, and it's certainly possible he could simply dominate and roll to an easy win. He has won seven times at Martinsville, and has finished in the top five in each of his past five races at the site. He has delivered 17 top-5 finishes and 23 top-10s in his career at Martinsville. He has an average finish of 7.3 at the site. In the past five Martinsville races, he ranks second among all drivers in average running position (7.4), fastest laps run (263) and laps in the top 15 (2,172, or 86.9 percent). He also ranks third in quality passes with 116. NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 while under green-flag conditions.
Tony Stewart (23.2); If you don't want to spend quite as much as Gordon commands, you can anchor your squad with Stewart this week. Fourth in the standings, he needs to make a serious move at Martinsville. Stewart won at Martinsville in 2006 and has four consecutive top-10 finishes at the site. He has won twice at the site and has 10 top-10 finishes in his career there. In the past five Martinsville races, Stewart leads all current drivers in average running position (4.4), fastest laps run (277) and laps in the top 15 (2,401or 96.0 percent).
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20.2): He is searching for that elusive final win as a member of DEI, and should contend for it this week. Earnhardt has seven top-5 finishes at Martinsville. In the past five races at the site, he leads all drivers with 229 green-flag passes and 123 quality passes. He also has 174 of the fastest laps run, which is fourth-best. During that span, he has also spent 1,754 laps in the top 15.
Jamie McMurray (16.1): His season has not turned out as hoped, after he showed some brief signs of promise, but Martinsville is certainly one of his better tracks and McMurray is a good bet to come through with a strong showing. He has six top-10 finishes in nine career starts at the site. He has finished in the top 10 in three of the past four Martinsville races, including a ninth-place showing earlier this season. He also finished ninth in the second Martinsville race of 2006.
Scott Riggs (13.9): Riggs has flashed his better form in recent races at Martinsville. He even took the pole at the site in the first race at the site in 2005. In the first race of 2006, he started in 11th place and managed to finish in 10th. In the first Martinsville race this year, he came through with his best finish ever at the site, as he placed eighth. That is Riggs' best finish of the 2007 season and his only top-10 showing this year. Riggs has started in the top 15 in each of the past three races, so look for a good qualifying effort.
Ricky Rudd (13.6): It's rare that Rudd is named as a quality start, but he is certainly the best bargain option at Martinsville. He has three career wins with 13 top-5 finishes and 20 top-10s at the site. In the past five Martinsville races, he has an average running position of 11.1, fourth-best among active drivers. His 1,181 laps in the top 15, or 78.7 percent, is also fourth-best. He also has 43 of the fastest laps run in the past five Martinsville races, and he has four consecutive top-15 finishes at the site.
Clint Bowyer (21.4) has an average finish of 18.7 in three career races at Martinsville. … Kyle Busch (21.4) has an average finish of 15.0 at Martinsville. .. Kurt Busch (20.4) has one Martinsville win and four top-10 showings at the site. … Denny Hamlin (21.0) has three top-10 finishes and an average finish of 12.5 at Martinsville. … In 26 career Martinsville races, Jeff Burton (20.2) has a total of 13 top-10 finishes.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.