Micah Roberts’ NASCAR Sprint Cup driver ratings

When NASCAR wagering at Las Vegas sports books began to take off in the late 1990’s, races at Martinsville Speedway were highly anticipated by bettors because there were always opportunities to cash in on a long shot underdog. The likes of Bobby Hamilton (25/1), Ricky Rudd (50/1), John Andretti (40/1) and Ricky Craven (25/1) all cashed in with high paying odds.

Seeing the long shot winners come at Martinsville was strange because all four of the drivers came from low budget teams compared to all the mega teams that were being formulated throughout NASCAR at the time. Martinsville had always been a track that had been traditionally dominated by a single driver over long stretches of time from Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and then Rusty Wallace.
Explaining the surprise winners from 1998 to 2001 was difficult because of the past history. It was thought by many at the time that Martinsville’s half-mile layout became somewhat of an equalizer against the high powered teams with less emphasis on horsepower, more on chassis set-up and how well a driver enters and exits the tight turns while managing their brakes throughout 500 laps. The theory still applies somewhat, but Martinsville races have now resorted back to their traditional ways with only a select few winning races since the anomaly began.
In the last eight Martinsville races to date, only Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have won. Mix in Jeff Gordon’s sweeps from 2003 and 2005 and it leaves us with only two other drivers to win there in eight years. And one of those drivers, Rusty Wallace, is retired.
Johnson came onto the Martinsville scene as a rookie in 2002 and finished 35th his first time out. Since then, he’s never finished worse than ninth, a stretch of 16 races. His ninth-place finish in the spring broke a streak a nine consecutive races that saw him finish no worse than fourth. Since 2004, Johnson has accumulated six wins at Martinsville.
Hamlin takes things up a notch when racing in front of his home-state crowds at Richmond and Martinsville. He’s already won at both tracks this season. His Martinsville win in March was his second straight there and third overall. Since finishing 37th in the spring of 2006, Hamlin has gone eight straight races finishing sixth or better.
Gordon has always been good at Martinsville, as his seven wins suggest. It was his success at Martinsville that propelled Johnson to the heights he’s reached now on the track. Gordon shared all his winning set-up notes with Johnson’s young team after he swept the 2003 season. Johnson would go on to win for the first time there in 2004. Gordon swept again in 2005, but hasn’t won since as his protégé has taken over and hasn’t let up since.  
However, Gordon hasn’t struggled by any means since Johnson went on his run. Gordon has nearly matched Johnson’s consistency at Martinsville over the same span finishing no worse than ninth in 15 straight races. For 11 straight races, Gordon has been a top-five finisher.
The trio of drivers have some pretty formidable statistics for the others to contend with which is why the sports books have their odds placed so low on them this week. Hamlin and Johnson are listed as 3 to 1 co-favorites at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book while Gordon is posted at 6 to 1. Each of them had good practice sessions with none having any significant edge. Johnson’s only issue is that he’s starting 19th and will have to traverse through the tight surroundings — hoping to escape other drivers wrecks — while attempting to advance.   
It’s been almost a decade since we’ve seen a large payout for a Martinsville race, but there is nothing wrong with taking a shot and hoping for the unexpected cycle to return. Here’s a look at the top candidates to unseat the kings of Martinsville:
Jeff Burton (20/1) led five times for 140 laps in the spring race but blew a tire with nine laps remaining. Burton battled his fellow Virginian all day, but didn’t have the final results to show for it. In the box score, it looks like a poor 20th-place finish, but in reality, Burton was better than 41 others cars all race long. After watching practice on Saturday where he was second fastest during happy hour, Burton again looks to be the one of the best on Sunday.
Tony Stewart (10/1) is the lone remaining driver to have won a race at Martinsville since 2003, having done so in 2006. He practiced well Friday in qualifying trim and will start sixth, but didn’t look so great in either of Saturday’s practices. However, with Stewart, practices aren’t the best gauge of what’s in store for race day.
Ryan Newman (30/1) is a candidate because he’s driving the same car that’s averaged a 5.7 finish in his last three Martinsville starts. He’s no stranger to success on the short track and has six top-five finishes to show for it.
Clint Bowyer (15/1) had very good practice times Saturday finishing second fastest in the early session and then following it up with third best during happy hour. Bowyer has always been one of the better flat track drivers on the circuit having just claimed a win five weeks ago at New Hampshire.
Several drivers are using their New Hampshire chassis’ this week because of the similarities in banking with Martinsville. Kevin Harvick (12/1) is one of them and looked outstanding in final practice runs. During happy hour, Harvick had the fastest consecutive 10 lap averages as well as the fastest overall average speeds. The only issue with Harvick this week is that he’s never performed well at Martinsville and he’s starting 36th. If he can stay out of trouble while passing the 35 other cars in front of him, Harvick should be able to duplicate his fifth-place run the chassis had for him at New Hampshire.
The long shots to take a look at for consideration are Mark Martin (50/1), Brad Keselowski (200/1) and Marcos Ambrose (100/1). Each showed signs of being able to compete with the elite drivers which should result in good finishes with a remote shot at winning. You never know, or at least, you never used to know for a brief four year stretch.           

Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car — or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.
Micah Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings
Tums Fast Relief 500
Martinsville Speedway
Sunday, October 24, 2010 – 10:16 am (PDT)
Rating    Driver     Odds   Practice 1  Qualifying  Practice 2  Practice 3
 1. Denny Hamlin 3/1          2nd               1st             17th             8th
Native Virginian has won last two Martinsville races and three overall; 6.6 average finish.
 2. Jimmie Johnson 3/1     13th              19th            10th             6th
Six-time winner with track best 5.4 average finish in 17 starts; using winning Loudon chassis.
 3. Jeff Gordon 6/1              8th              11th            13th             7th
Seven time winner on track with last coming in 2005 sweep, 11 straight top-five finishes.
 4. Jeff Burton 20/1            19th              18th             6th              2nd
Native Virginian claimed 1997 win; led five times for 140 laps in the spring race.
 5. Tony Stewart 10/1         1st                6th             18th             35th
Two-time winner with the last coming in spring of 2006; using Loudon chassis this week.
 6. Clint Bowyer 15/1           6th               17th            2nd              3rd
One of the better flat track drivers. 12.8 average finish in nine starts; debuts new car this week..
 7. Ryan Newman 30/1       25th              4th            12th              15th
Using same chassis that has averaged a finish of 5.7 in last three Martinsville starts.
 8. Greg Biffle 50/1              4th               3rd             22nd             1st
No top five finishes in 15 career Martinsville starts, but fast in practice; using Loudon chassis.
 9. Kevin Harvick 12/1        28th              36th            3rd               5th
No top five finishes in 18 starts, but had fastest average speeds during happy hour; using Loudon chassis.
10. Mark Martin 50/1          20th              21st            32nd            10th        
Two-time winner with the last coming in 2000; fourth fastest average speeds during happy hour.
Note: Martinsville’s flat 0.526-mile layout is unlike any other track on the circuit, but some crew chiefs do use notes from their Loudon, New Hampshire set-ups.
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Micah Roberts, a former Race and Sports Book Director, has been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1995. He currently writes for multiple publications covering all sports. He can be reached at MM.Roberts7Gmail.com.
DENNY HAMLIN ON WHAT SUITS HIM SO WELL AT MARTINSVILLE: “It’s really a combination of things. I have raced here more than I have raced at any other track when you consider total laps. Growing up in Virginia I had the chance to race here in some other series and all that track time definitely gave me a comfort level at Martinsville. That carried over to trucks and Nationwide Series and now to the Cup Series.  I feel really confident at this track and I know we bring great cars – those things together usually lead to success. It’s also a lot of pressure because this is a race we circled as one where we expect to be really competitive.”
JEFF BURTON ON WHY HE LIKES RACING AT MARTINSVILLE: “It’s cool to race in your hometown. I grew up about an hour from Martinsville and ran late model races there when I was a kid. I can remember when they announced we were going to run late model races at Martinsville. I remember thinking that it was the coolest thing ever that we would have a chance to do that. That track has always meant a lot. I was able to win my first Nationwide Series race there. We’ve run well there. The spring race was really good for us. We had a shot to win that race but ended up cutting a right-front tire real late. We led a lot of laps and thought we had a great opportunity to win, but it got away from us. I’d like to go back and redeem that.”
JIMMIE JOHNSON ON HAVING A 41 POINT LEAD IN THE CHASE AND RACING AT ONE OF HIS BEST TRACKS: “Yeah, you know we are excited to be back at Martinsville. Martinsville has been a great track for the 48 team over the years and there is a certain rhythm to this track that took me a while to figure out but once I found the rhythm the results have been really good for me here and its just a fun place to race. It can be frustrating at times and there is no doubt about that but when you get in the right rhythm and things are clicking off like you would hope you can have a lot of fun on this race track. It’s cool and I am glad to be back and we will just see how the weekend unfolds.”
RYAN NEWMAN ON HIS SUCCUSS AT MARTINSVILLE: “I like the short-track racing. The more a driver has input – especially with some of the racetracks we go to, you don’t have to brake a lot – the more the driver has input, the more the driver has an effect. The short-track racing I definitely enjoy because of that. You go to a place like Michigan or California, it takes less driver and more car than it does at a short track, in my opinion. That is one of the things I enjoy about Martinsville. We had a good run there in the spring. We were fastest in practice, but we had to start pretty deep in the field because qualifying got rained out. But we had a good enough car that I was able to drive it into the top-10 and race there all day. And there, at the end, Tony Gibson used some strategy and made a pit call that put us in position to win the race with just a handful of laps to go. I was just unlucky on the outside there on the last restart. To get a top-four out of that and on older tires, I can’t complain. So, I look forward to going back. Gibson is a great fan of Martinsville and short-track racing, and he’s got a great understanding of the racecar there and what I like, and that makes a big difference, obviously, for me. We’ve been able to get three top-10 finishes in our three trips to Martinsville, and we’re looking forward to continuing that streak. It’s a fun racetrack, as long as you stay out of trouble and keep your brakes cool.”
compiled by Mike Forde
NASCAR Media Services
·         Opened in September 1947 by H. Clay Earles, Martinsville, originally a dirt track, is one of the oldest continuously-operating race tracks in the United States.
·         The first NASCAR-sanctioned race at Martinsville was on July 4, 1948.
·         The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was Sept. 25, 1949.
·         The track was paved in 1955.
·         The first 500-lap event at Martinsville was in 1956.
·         Concrete corners were added atop asphalt in 1976.
·         There have been 123 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Martinsville Speedway, one in the inaugural year and two races per year since 1950.
·         Curtis Turner won the pole for the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville in 1949.
·         Red Byron won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup race, which took place on the original – Strictly Stock – schedule.
·         55 drivers have won poles, led by Darrell Waltrip with eight. Jeff Gordon, with seven poles, can tie that mark this weekend.
·         Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Darrell Waltrip share the consecutive pole record, each with three.
·         45 different drivers have won, led by Richard Petty’s 15.
·         Jeff Gordon leads active drivers, with seven wins. Jimmie Johnson has six.
·         Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win each of the last eight races.
·         18 races have been won from the pole, the last by Jimmie Johnson in October 2008.
·         Petty Enterprises has won 19 races, more than any other organization. Hendrick Motorsports, with 18 wins, can tie that mark this weekend.
·         Kurt Busch won the 2002 fall race from the 36th starting position, the furthest back a race winner has started.
·         Three active drivers average a top-10: Jimmie Johnson (5.4), Jeff Gordon (6.7), Denny Hamlin (6.6).
·         Tony Stewart won his first career series pole at Martinsville, in April of 1999.
·         The last six races that have ended under green have had a margin of victory under one second.
NASCAR in Virginia
·         There have been 269 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Virginia.
·         159 drivers in NASCAR’s three national series (all-time) have their home state recorded as Virginia.
·         There have been 18 race winners from Virginia in NASCAR’s three national series:

Joe Weatherly 25 0 0
Ricky Rudd 23 1 0
Jeff Burton 21 27 0
Curtis Turner 17 0 0
Denny Hamlin 14 10 0
Ward Burton 5 4 0
Glen Wood 4 0 0
Elliott Sadler 3 5 1
Emanuel Zervakis 2 0 0
Lennie Pond 1 0 0
Wendell Scott 1 0 0
Tommy Ellis 0 22 0
Jimmy Hensley 0 9 2
Rick Mast 0 9 0
Hermie Sadler 0 2 0
Elton Sawyer 0 2 0
Stacy Compton 0 0 2
Jon Wood 0 0 2

Martinsville Speedway Data
Race #: 32 of 36 (10-24-10)
Track Size: .526 mile
Race Length: 500 laps/263 miles
·     Banking/Corners: 12 degrees
·     Banking/Straights: 0 degrees
·     Frontstretch: 800 feet
·     Backstretch: 800 feet

Driver Rating at Martinsville
Jimmie Johnson            123.8
Jeff Gordon                  123.0
Denny Hamlin                111.4
Tony Stewart                 108.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.         98.1
Kevin Harvick                90.1
Kyle Busch                   89.9
Mark Martin                   89.1
Ryan Newman               87.8
Note: Driver Rating compiled from 2005-2010 races (11 total) at Martinsville Speedway.
Qualifying/Race Data
2009 pole winner: Ryan Newman (96.795 mph, 19.563 sec.)
2009 race winner: Denny Hamlin, 73.633 mph, 10-25-09)
Track qualifying record: Tony Stewart (98.083 mph, 19.306 secs., 10-21-05)
Race record: Jeff Gordon (82.223 mph, 9-22-96)
Estimated Pit Window: Every 140-150 laps, based on fuel mileage.



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