Drivers to watch for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville

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Martinsville Speedway marks the shortest track on the points-paying Cup schedule at just 0.526 miles around.

The paperclip-shaped track hosts the first scheduled night race of the season on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1) as the second straight short track for the Next Gen car.

The winning streak for drivers under 30 years old came to an end last week when 41-year-old Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag at Richmond Raceway. Will the older drivers get back to their winning ways at Martinsville? Let’s look at who might be up front:

FRONT RUNNERS

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Third
  • Last three races: 8th — Atlanta; 7th — COTA; 4th — Richmond
  • Recent at Martinsville: Three wins in last five races

Truex has been the driver to beat lately at Martinsville. The 2017 champion has won there in each of the last three seasons including the track’s last two spring events.

The No. 19 Toyota returned to form last weekend at Richmond Raceway, leading 80 laps before finishing fourth. He and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates seemed to show they and Toyota are back.

Martinsville lends itself to heavier braking with its tighter corners, but Truex has shown no reason to doubt he’ll run up front Saturday.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: Tied for first
  • Last three races: 6th — Atlanta; 4th — COTA; 14th — Richmond
  • Recent at Martinsville: Three top fives in last four races

Elliott lone win at Martinsville came in November 2020, a victory that propelled him into the Championship 4 and toward his first Cup title. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson struck on consistency at the half-mile track with six top-10 finishes in their last eight Martinsville starts.

Last week at Richmond, Elliott wasn’t much of a factor en route to a 14th-place finish while each of his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished inside the top eight.

But Elliott was runner-up in the spring Martinsville race one year ago and has led six of the last 10 races there. Elliott will likely be at the front of the field again Saturday.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: Tied for first
  • Last three races: 17th — Atlanta; 6th — COTA; 7th — Richmond
  • Recent at Martinsville: Six top-10 finishes in last nine races

Blaney has seemingly done everything this year but win. The No. 12 Ford leads the field in multiple categories but has yet to finish higher than fourth.

Martinsville has proven to be one of Blaney’s strong suits though. While he’s still searching for his first grandfather clock trophy, Blaney has finished second here twice and scored four straight top fives between 2019 and 2020.

Last year, Blaney finished 11th in both Martinsville events but swept the opening stages before being penalized on pit road at Lap 454. Only 400 laps are scheduled this time around, perhaps playing into his favor this weekend.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 20th
  • Last three races: 29th — Atlanta;18th — COTA; WIN — Richmond
  • Recent at Martinsville: Three finishes of 11th or worse in last four races

Hamlin is a five-time winner at Martinsville and was in contention again in November. But contact from Alex Bowman sent the No. 11 Toyota spinning in Turn 3 with seven laps to go, relegating Hamlin to a 24th-place finish while Bowman won.

Hamlin has been hit-or-miss lately at Martinsville. He hasn’t won at the paperclip since March 2015, but he also has four top fives in the last seven races there.

The No. 11 car was third in the spring last year and carries momentum from a Richmond win into this weekend for the first time this season.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 10th
  • Last three races: 33rd — Atlanta; 28th — COTA; 9th — Richmond
  • Recent at Martinsville: Three straight top 10s

Kyle Busch is the series’ winningest active driver on short tracks with 16 such wins, but the two-time Cup champion has just two wins at Martinsville.

Still, he’s been one of the best there lately, notching nine top fives and 11 top-10 finishes in the last 13 races. Busch spun twice last spring but still rallied for a 10th-place finish.

His 2022 season has been full of necessary comebacks after mid-race issues. Is this the week the No. 18 team finally gets a clean race?

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Fifth
  • Last three races: 9th — Atlanta; 31st — COTA; 17th — Richmond
  • Recent at Martinsville: Seven top 10s in last eight races

Logano is on a hot streak at Martinsville with five consecutive top-10 finishes. The 2018 series champion burst his way into the Championship 4 that year after roughing up Truex coming to the checkered flag.

The No. 22 team has led laps in 14 of the last 16 races at Martinsville, but mistakes on the track at Circuit of the Americas and on pit road at Richmond have resulted in finishes well outside the team’s capabilities.

The racing gets rough at Martinsville, but Logano has shown his own aggression that might work to his favor on Saturday night.