Round of 8 kicks off at Martinsville

And then there were eight.

The playoff field has been trimmed in half after six races. And the final eight drivers will travel to Martinsville Speedway this Sunday afternoon to kick off the Round of 8 with the First Data 500. It might be NASCAR’s shortest track, but it usually produces huge storylines and winners.


WHAT: First Data 500 (263 miles, 500 laps. Stages of 130, 130 and 240 laps, respectively)

WHEN: Sunday, October 29, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 3:16 p.m. ET

WHERE: Martinsville Speedway, 0.526-mile paperclip oval located in Martinsville, Virginia

FAVORITES: Kyle Busch (3-1), Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski (9-2) and Jimmie Johnson (7-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Jimmie Johnson won the Goody’s 500 one year ago en route to his record-tying seventh championship. Johnson led 92 of the 500 laps and won his ninth career event at The Paperclip. The win gave him an automatic berth to the championship four at Homestead, as well.


THE LINEUP

Joey Logano earned his first pole since Phoenix in the spring and the 19th of his career on Sunday at Martinsville, running a lap of 96.504 mph (19.662 seconds) around the 0.526-mile paperclip. Last week’s winner Martin Truex Jr. will roll off in second place.

Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10 qualifiers. Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez completed the top 15 finishers from Martinsville as well. The lone playoff driver who qualified outside the top 15 is Jimmie Johnson, who will start in 24th.

Due to qualifying not occurring earlier in the week, pit stalls were selected based on last week’s qualifying session. Although the No. 78 of Truex Jr. will start second, they have the No. 1 pit stall. With the inside lane being so pivotal on restarts at Martinsville and pit road being one of the narrowest on the circuit, pit road could very well be where this race is won and lost.


ELITE EIGHT

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney or Denny Hamlin. One of those eight drivers will be our 2018 champion.

That’s what we know. What we don’t know is who will be the first of the eight to clinch a spot in the championship four. And if one of those drivers wins at Martinsville, they’ll be onto Miami and sitting pretty heading into Texas and Phoenix the next two weekends.

Keselowski won at Martinsville earlier this season, and is going for the season sweep and second grandfather clock of the season. Busch has finished fifth or better in his last four starts at the track. Hamlin has multiple wins at Martinsville and it is his home track. Elliott has yet to win in the Cup Series, but could very well do it here, where his father never won. And oh by the way, Truex Jr. has been the dominant car all season and Harvick won here in 2011. These final eight drivers are some of the best in the garage, and they’ll be showing why on Sunday.


SEVEN-TIME GOING FOR 10

Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers with his nine wins at Martinsville Speedway. If he wins this weekend, he’ll get to double digits and improve his already stunning numbers at the track.

Martinsville would become the second track for Johnson where he has double-digit wins, joining Dover International Speedway, where he has 11 wins. He has 19 top fives, 24 top 10s and an average finish of 7.5 in his career at Martinsville to go along with his nine wins. Plus, a series-best driver rating (116.9) and average running position (8.0) don’t hurt, either.


NO DAYLIGHT? NO PROBLEM

Mother Nature has threatened the start time and conclusion of the First Data 500 due to rain being in the Martinsville area throughout the day Sunday, but have no fear: we’re equipped.

The speedway, the oldest in NASCAR, installed LED lights around the half-mile circuit, meaning a night race is a possibility if rain delays the event. The air titans will also be able to dry the track in around one hour or less due to the shortness of the track. Half a mile is much easier to dry than 2.66 miles, like Talladega Superspeedway would be if it ever rained there.


PREDICTION

As stated this week on Victory Lane, this race has the makings of a spoiler coming in and stealing the spotlight. I think that guy will be Kyle Larson, who is hungry to show the rest of the field that his engine failure last week doesn’t mean he forgot how to win races.