NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Four Races Left & Four Drivers With A Chance

There are four races to go in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and four drivers who have a realistic championship. Jimmie Johnson has moved into the lead after last week in Talladega, with Matt Kenseth four points back. And in a spirit of generosity, TheSportsNotebook is including Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick among those with a shot. Both drivers are 26 points out, and I’m willing to give them one more week to see if they can make a significant dent in that number.

The race at Talladega last week offered some hope of unpredictability, given its past history and with Jamie McMurray winning, along with some surprise Top 10 finishers, it produced that. But other than Johnson and Kenseth flipping the 1-2 spots–a close race anyway–the significant moves were not made by anyone in the Chase playoffs. It was a missed opportunity that, barring a miracle, has all but eliminated the nine playoff drivers beyond our contending four.

Now we move on to Martinsville Speedway for the Goodys Headache Relief Shot 500 on Sunday (1:30 PM ET, ESPN). Martinsville is the shortest track on the circuit and according to TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR fan, my brother Bill, that makes it ripe for revenge. The bumper-to-bumper driving that a short track creates means it’s easy for a driver to deliver a bump to a rival and get away with it.

Of the four contending drivers and their recent records at Martinsville, it was noteworthy that Busch hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success here. There have been 11 races run here since 2008 (there is always a race in the late March/early April window in addition to this season-ender), and Busch has finished 22nd or lower six times, and he’s never won. Busch has a reputation as a good closer–while he’s not the most consistent driver, he piles up a good number of wins, so his inability to get it done in Martinsville was striking.

But while striking, maybe it wasn’t surprising that Busch would struggle on a track noted for revenge. He is, in the words of Bill “a whiner” (actually Bill’s words were much harsher, but this is a family-friendly site). Last week, the whining extended to his own crew. Busch was upset with his team over his own failure to make a pit stop. He wasn’t in position to pull off to the side and complained that he hadn’t been given proper notification. That’s certainly a classy move for a driver to publicly call out the people who do his dirty work in the trenches. Who knows, maybe Sunday will be the first time a driver gets a revenge bump from his own team.

One driver who has had no problems in Martinsville is Jimmie Johnson. In that same 11-race window that Busch has struggled, JJ has won four times and finished second twice. Just as important, he’s never been lower than 11th. Any hope of Busch or Harvick getting back into championship contention is going to mean that Johnson and Kenseth have to each have a disastrous outing. If form holds, it won’t be Johnson this week.

Kenseth’s record at Martinsville is not dazzling, but it’s on the upswing. From 2008 to the early race in 2011, he ranged from mediocre to poor at this venue. In the four races since, his finishes have ranged from 4th to 14th, and if that holds, he’ll at least be right on Johnson’s heels by Sunday.

Johnson is the top-heavy favorite to win this race, going off at 3-2 betting odds, an absurd number for a driver in a field of 30-plus cars. Busch, in spite of his poor record here, is 6-1, presumably on the strength of his reputation. Kenseth is 8-1 and Harvick is 12-1.