Joey Logano must watch his back at Martinsville
Perched atop the No. 11 pit box, wearing a back brace to protect his fractured spine, Denny Hamlin will closely monitor the action on Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, a .526 paper clip-shaped oval that is NASCAR's shortest track. He'll watch Mark Martin drive his car and he'll no doubt keep tabs on Joey Logano, who caused Hamlin to wreck violently head-on into the inside wall at Fontana two weeks ago.
Hamlin met with reporters at Joe Gibbs Racing on Wednesday and was at times emotional as he spoke about the crash, Logano, his rehab (he's expected to miss five races), and the pain he's still in. What he made abundantly clear was that his anger at Logano has not abated and he feels that Logano has not exhibited proper contrition. Payback, without a doubt, is coming when Hamlin returns. He even joked about how Logano should swap sponsors with Juan Pablo Montoya, who is backed by Target, because Logano will now have a bull's-eye on his car for the next few weeks.
"This is a self-policing sport," Hamlin said, noting that he didn't believe Logano should be penalized by NASCAR for his actions. "From this point on, he has to deal with all the repercussions."
Will Logano end up in the wall on Sunday? He's one of five drivers I'll be closely watching when the green flag drops on race No. 6 of the 2013 season.
1. Joey Logano
In eight career starts at Martinsville, Logano has never led a lap and his average finish is 15.2, but the big question on Sunday is if he will even make it to the finish line.
After being blocked by Logano on the final restart at Fontana, Tony Stewart vowed to take him out. Yes, Stewart's remarks were made in the heat of the moment, but it would surprise no one in the garage if he delivered on that threat. Unlike Fontana, which is a wide-open two-mile track where speeds reach 200 miles per hour, Martinsville is a tiny oval where the qualifying speed record is only 98.083 mph (set by Jeff Gordon in October 2005). So if Stewart were to boot Logano into the wall, the risk of injury is far less than at Fontana. Stay tuned.
2. Tony Stewart
Stewart has to measure his aggression -- and the risks he's willing to take -- against the fact that he's currently 22nd in the standings and already running out of time to make up ground and qualify for the Chase. So Stewart needs to be judicious on the track, which means if he does try to go after Logano, he needs to make sure that he doesn't wreck himself in the process.
Stewart has three career wins at Martinsville. He typically excels on short tracks, so expect him to run in the top 10 and be a menacing presence to Logano all afternoon.
3. Jimmie Johnson
After winning the Daytona 500 and finishing second at Phoenix, Johnson has fallen -- by his high standards -- into a mini-slump. He came in 22nd at Bristol and then 12th at Fontana. He's currently third in the points and he remains my pick to win the championship this season.
Johnson has owned Martinsville. In 22 starts at the short track, he has seven wins and 15 top-five runs, which means he's placed in the top five in 68.2 percent of his starts. He should be very, very fast on Sunday. Look for a top-three finish for the No. 48 team.
4. Kyle Busch
Busch is currently the hottest driver in NASCAR. In his last three starts, he's came in fourth at Las Vegas, second at Bristol, and first at Fontana. He's currently sixth in the standings.
I think he'll have another strong run on Sunday. Martinsville requires drivers to charge hard into the corners while at the same time conserving their brakes. It's a delicate balance, but Busch has excelled at the track. He finished second here last fall and he should wind up with another top-five on Sunday.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For the first time in his career, Earnhardt has started the season with five consecutive top-10 finishes. Though he has yet to win a race in 2013, his consistency has vaulted him to the top of the points standings.
In 26 career starts at Martinsville, Earnhardt's average finish is 13.0, which statistically makes this his best track on the circuit. Earnhardt has a natural feel for it and the rhythms of each lap. He's never taken a checkered flag at the short track in southern Virginia, but it says here that will change on Sunday. He's my pick to win.