Today's Tums Fast Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway could be the last opportunity for a driver to make a substantial gain on his competitors in the battle for the Sprint Cup championship. The tight turns and slow pace make it difficult to gain position but all to easy to lose it. Spins are common at Martinsville, and one by one of the five remaining contenders for the title - Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, and Kevin Harvick - could be disastrous.
As such, all 500 laps - or however many are run, depending on the need for attempts at a green-white-checkered finish - will are can't-miss. You can watch today's race at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN, preceded by their pre-race show at 1 p.m., or you can listen to the race on MRN Radio. To find your MRN affiliate, head to MRN.com.
Because of rain Saturday and a washout of pre-qualifying practice, the lineup was set by car-owner points. For those new to NASCAR, car owner points are paid the same as driver championship points, but they are paid to the car itself, regardless of driver. Obviously, the top drivers are also at the top of the car-owner standings. As such, Edwards and his championship rivals start at the front of today's field.
To find where your favorite driver is starting, head over to Jayski.com.
Here are some stories to watch for in today's Chase race at the Martinsville Speedway:
The title contenders all start up front. How nice will they be racing amongst one another? The rain has given the drivers in the Chase - the five contenders and the seven who have faded from the title hunt over the previous six races - prime starting position in today's event. It also gives them prime opportunity to run into one another. Banging amongst the drivers in the hunt or between a driver with a shot at the title and one who's fallen back could generate the kind of controversey that makes Martinsville and short-track racing in general so popular.
Jeff Gordon's "drive for five" is over, but he has an opportunity to reach a milestone today. Gordon has had plenty of success in his career at Martinsville, including seven victories, 24 top-fives, and 30 top-10s in 37 starts. He could add to his legend at the paperclip today by reaching and passing the 3,000 laps led mark. Gordon needs to only lead 19 laps to hit the milestone.
Can Denny Hamlin get back to victory lane at Martinsville? Hamlin has four wins in the last seven races at Martinsville, including this race the last two years. For all intents and purposes, his 2011 season has been a misery, given that he was supposed to contend for this year's title. A win Sunday would not heal all the ill memories of a disappointing season, but it would provide a needed shot of energy to a team that has been all but an afterthought seemingly since losing the championship last November at Homestead.
Could today be Dale Earnhardt Jr's day? His winless streak stands at 125 races, but Earnhardt nearly ended that stretch in April. He passed Kyle Busch 21 laps from the end and led the next 17 circuits, but was denied when Kevin Harvick overhauled him four laps from the end. Earnhardt's drought seemed sure to end when his team was running well earlier in the season, but they backed into the Chase and have been an afterthought during the opening six races of the playoff. A sudden end to Earnhardt's losing streak could be the boost of confidence his team needs to get back on track heading into 2012.
Will flat tires play a role in deciding the win - or the championship? Popped right front tires are common-place at Martinsville. The extensive brake heat generated by navigating a .526-mile short track often melts the bead of the Goodyear tires, sending a driver out of the groove and often into the wall. Flat tires under green flag conditions can drop a driver three or more laps down, which effectively ends their shot at a decent finish.