Dale Jr.-Jimmie matchup headlines NASCAR Bracketology's Elite Eight
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 4) will battle Jimmie Johnson (No. 21) for a Final Four spot
Other battles to watch: Kevin Harvick v. Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle v. Martin Truex
Final four drivers will be determined by results at Martinsville on Sunday, April 1
The favorites remain and a Cinderella has emerged in NASCAR Bracketology, as the 32-driver field has been cut to the Elite Eight heading into this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.
This week's matchup features some potent pairings with a berth in the Final Four at stake.
If you missed it, I created a 32-driver NASCAR Tournament similar to the NCAA's version. Drivers were seeded based on the points after the Las Vegas race. Every driver behind Mark Martin, who was 10th in the points at the time, moved up a spot since he didn't compete at Bristol.
Drivers were placed in a bracket and whichever finished the best at Bristol moved to the Sweet 16. Drivers in the Sweet 16 advanced to the Elite Eight based on last weekend's results at Auto Club Speedway.
All four top seeds -- Greg Biffle (No. 1), Kevin Harvick (No. 2), Denny Hamlin (No. 3) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 4) -- have advanced to the Elite Eight. Earnhardt is the defending champion of NASCAR Bracketology and owns a career record of 7-0 in the two years I've done this. Earnhardt defeated AJ Allmendinger in the first round and eliminated Brad Keselowski in the Sweet 16 to get to this point this year.
Earnhardt's road back to the championship won't be easy, though. He meets No. 21 seed Jimmie Johnson in the Richard Petty Regional Final. Whoever finishes the highest at Martinsville advances to the Final Four.
Johnson has had the toughest road to this point. He eliminated Ryan Newman in the first round by finishing ninth at Bristol when Newman finished 12th. Johnson eliminated Matt Kenseth in the Sweet 16 at Auto Club Speedway by finishing 10th, while Kenseth was 16th.
Earnhardt and Johnson both reached the Elite Eight last year. The only other driver back in the Elite Eight this year is Harvick. He also has a challenging matchup, facing No. 7 seed Tony Stewart in the Junior Johnson Regional Final.
Aric Almirola is the lowest seed remaining at No. 22. He advanced by beating Kyle Busch in the first round. Busch finished 32nd at Bristol after he was collected in the early accident, while Almirola finished 19th. Last weekend, Almirola finished better than David Ragan, who knocked off Carl Edwards at Bristol in the first round.
Almirola faces Hamlin in the Dale Earnhardt Regional Final.
In the David Pearson Regional Final, it's Biffle vs. Truex in a matchup of drivers who have struggled at Martinsville. This also could be a battle worth watching.
Here's a closer look at each matchup:
This will be a matchup of drivers who have struggled at Martinsville. Biffle ranks 24th and Truex 25th in driver rating at Martinsville based on the last 14 races there. Biffle's average finish there is 22.4, while Truex's average finish is 22.8. In the last 10 races at Martinsville, both have finished better than the other five times. In last fall's race, Truex finished eighth, while Biffle was 15th.
Johnson's average finish is 5.4, while Earnhardt's average finish is 13.0. Johnson has finished ahead of Earnhardt in nine of the last 10 Martinsville races, however Earnhardt is closing the gap. His second-place finish in last spring's race was better than Johnson, who was 11th. Earnhardt has seven top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts at Martinsville, while Johnson has nine top-10s in the same stretch. Even if the numbers say Johnson should win, this could be one to watch.
The marquee matchup of the Elite Eight. This is a battle of the track's two winners last year. Stewart won the fall race and Harvick won the spring race. Stewart's average finish at Martinsville is 13.4, while Harvick's average finish is 15.9. In the last 10 races, Stewart has finished higher than Harvick six times. Harvick, though, has finished ahead of Stewart in two of the last three Martinsville races.
Will Hamlin end Almirola's Cinderella run? Past history suggests yes. Hamlin has been among the top drivers at Martinsville in recent years with four wins and 11 top-10 finishes in 13 starts. Almirola has no top-10 finishes in six starts at Martinsville. Hamlin also has finished outside the top five only once in the last eight Martinsville races. Almirola's best finish at the track is 20th.
Greg Biffle-Martin Truex Jr. winner vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Jimmie Johnson winner
Kevin Harvick-Tony Stewart winner vs. Denny Hamlin-Aric Almirola winner