Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in motorsports as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday for the first race in the semifinal round of the playoffs:
Turn 1: The Round of 8 is all set for the semifinals. Who do you have advancing to the final four for the championship race at Homestead?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: I have Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, of course. I’m not necessarily placing my confidence in the speed of the 48, but on the experience of the driver and crew chief.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Truex, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. It feels stupid leaving Johnson off the list, but he’s already used enough horseshoes this season.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: I like Kyle Busch to win at Martinsville, Truex to win at Texas (duh, it’s a 1.5-mile track) and Harvick in Phoenix. That leaves one spot, and I’m giving a slight edge to Keselowski over Chase Elliott, since Brad starts the round with 20 more points and had a fourth-place average finish on this round’s tracks earlier this season.
Turn 2: Which of the eight drivers still in the playoffs is most dependent on a successful race Sunday at Martinsville?
Craven: At the risk of contradicting answer No. 1, Johnson is most dependent on a strong Martinsville. I believe this for two reasons. Chevrolet has not been able to match the speed of the Toyotas on larger tracks, but most importantly, Jimmie needs a strong Martinsville because he told me so Sunday night. He knows and understands the path to an eighth title. He has traveled that path seven times.
McGee: Hamlin. If he’s going to really make a run at this, it needs to start Sunday. He’s won at all three tracks between now and Homestead, but wasn’t great at any of them the first time around this season. I’ve always gauged the health of this team by how well he runs at the track he knows best. Yes, I know he’s from Richmond, but the one he’s run the most is Martinsville.
Pockrass: Elliott. He’s too far back in the points as the only winless driver that a bad run at Martinsville will put him in a deep hole.
Willis: It’s hard to say a nine-time Martinsville winner has something to prove, but Johnson might have to get it done at Martinsville. The second race of the leg is at Texas, and he’s struggled to the tune of a 15.3 average finish and one top-5 (albeit a win at Texas, but he only led 18 laps) on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Johnson just snuck into this round and might have to win at one of his best tracks to make it through.
Turn 3: Matt Kenseth was eliminated from playoff contention. Where, if anywhere, do you see him driving next season?
Craven: I see Matt driving his daughters to Cannon School. And while I know the urge to compete will always exist, it makes no sense for Matt to spend the last inning of his career driving equipment inferior to what he experienced at Joe Gibbs Racing.
McGee: I think he’ll be stuck in I-77 traffic. While we’re all throwing palm fronds at Junior’s feet as he exits, another Hall of Famer is likely saying goodbye to full-time racing, too. And if he is, he’s doing it just as he would’ve preferred, with zero fanfare.
Pockrass: I see him driving to all of his daughters’ activities. On the racetrack? Most likely only in a substitute role.
Willis: It’s unfortunate to see a driver with a lot left in the tank (pun intended) be the odd man out. There’s a chance he heads to Stewart-Haas Racing to take the car not (presumably) lined up for Aric Almirola. Would he be willing to drive a couple more years in a car for a team like Front Row Motorsports? Something tells me no. But the most I can get inside his head is to know he’s got an awesome first name, and probably was not happy about Aaron Rodgers’ injury.
Turn 4: Is it OK that Kansas qualifying set pit-stall selection order for Martinsville because there is only about two hours between qualifying and the race?
Craven: Pit road selection at Martinsville is critical. Nothing about competing at Martinsville translates to competing at Kansas. The whole concept seems convoluted. I haven’t figured out the logic behind this decision.
McGee: This is dumb. We finally have the one-day show I’ve been begging for and this is sitting there, in the way. File this in the drawer marked “There’s always one thing that makes you go, ‘Why?'” It’s a pretty full drawer.
Pockrass: No. When NASCAR has back-to-back races because of rain, the stalls are able to get set up within an hour. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and there should be a will to have qualifying impact pit selection for that specific race. To have Kansas qualifying impact the Martinsville race just seems wrong.
Willis: Something about it rubs me the wrong way, and maybe it’s because we’ve seen pit road come so much into play recently (see Kenseth, Matt), and that pit road is so tight here that the first pit stall could be worth a few positions each stop. Kansas and Martinsville are such different animals. Why not use practice speeds from Friday and give a little extra juice to those practices? Or, better yet, a hot dog eating contest!