Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE
If history holds true to form at the most historic of NASCAR tracks, Martinsville Speedway could be Brad Keselowski's Waterloo. Conversely, the .526-mile paper-clip circuit could also be the best opportunity for Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin to loosen Keselowski's grasp on the NASCAR Sprint Cup series lead.
So far this season, Keselowski has answered all challenges and turned back all comers with the look of a champion. But for a coronation to occur four races from now at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Keselowski will have to beat the Martinsville masters at their own game in Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500 (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), round 7 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason.
Keselowski's sample size at the lone short track in the Chase is relatively small, having only been a full-timer in the Cup series for three years. To place it in perspective, Johnson has more victories (six) at Martinsville than Keselowski has starts (five) there. Hamlin isn't far behind, with four wins at the Virginia short track.
Keselowski hasn't been awful at Martinsville, but his average finish of 13.4 is a few steps behind the stellar series-best 5.8 of Johnson and the admirable 6.4 of Hamlin. But despite what the numbers say, Keselowski -- who leads Johnson by seven points and third-place Hamlin by 20 -- has frequently defied conventional wisdom in 2012. Sunday's 500-lapper may be the next exhibit in building his case for his first Sprint Cup title.
"Martinsville is just one of those tracks where it seems like there's numerous variables that we've struggled with," said Keselowski, who notched a career-best ninth-place finish at Martinsville earlier this season. ". . . Those things happen, but we've had speed at Martinsville and I'm encouraged by that. And you know eventually if you have enough speed at a track over and over again that you will get the results out of it, and I'm confident of that."
Keselowski's confidence, however, is matched by that of his rivals. Hamlin, who famously called his shot before his New Hampshire victory via Twitter, turned to social media earlier in the week to tweet that it was "time for MAX points." Johnson's attitude is similarly buoyant heading to one of his most favorable tracks.
"It's pressure time, it's go time, it's all that stuff with four (races) to go," Johnson said Tuesday. "The points as tight as they are, we expect to be one of the cars racing for the win."