NASCAR at Martinsville: Viewer's guide for today's race

Here are some storylines, notes and drivers to watch for during today's NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway:

Storylines

Johnson and Hamlin looking to close in on Keselowski

Even before hitting the track on Friday, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin all knew Martinsville was going to go a very long way to dictating who was going to win the championship.

For Johnson and Hamlin, Martinsville represented an opportunity to cut into Keselowski's lead, as the points leader has yet to post a finish better than ninth in five starts. Whereas the two challengers have combined to win eight of the last 12 races and will almost certainly be formidable this afternoon.

This thinking has been reinforced throughout the weekend, as Johnson and Hamlin have been fast from the moment they hit the half-mile oval, while Keselowski has struggled to find speed - as evident by the fact he qualified 32nd. And that listless effort in qualifying by the Penske Racing driver puts him in a precarious position today.

With track position being everything at Martinsville, Keselowski is already behind the proverbial eight-ball. Not only is he in danger of going a lap down early, but the odds of him getting caught up in an early incident - which could easily lead to his undoing - have risen dramatically. And now instead of Johnson and Hamlin having to catch him, the onus is now on Keselowski to find a way to catch them - far, far easier said than done.

The return of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After a two-week absence, all eyes will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he makes his return from a series of concussions. Although there may be some question of whether he should have returned so soon - not to mention on a track where accidents are the norm and not the exception -- NASCAR's most popular driver isn't concerned. Earlier in the week he went through an extensive test session at a local short track, where afterwards he was given the all clear with the assurance that he was fit to get back behind the wheel on a full-time basis.

And despite never having won at Martinsville, the half-mile bullring does give him a very good chance of having a successful return. In his last four starts, Earnhardt Jr. posted four straight finishes of seventh of better - including a third in the spring race - and was third fastest in final practice.

Worth Noting
  • Today marks the 3,000 time a Jack Roush-owned car has started a Sprint Cup Series race. Roush's first Cup start as a car owner came in 1988 at Daytona with Mark Martin behind the wheel.
  • In the long history of Martinsville - a span of 127 races dating back to 1949 - only once has a driver started worse than 25th and gone on to win. That driver was Kurt Busch, who went to Victory Lane in 2002 after starting 36th.
  • Interestingly, no active driver has made as many Martinsville starts (14) without leading a single lap than Brian Vickers, who will start second today.
Favorites

1. Jimmie Johnson

This slot could have easily gone to Denny Hamlin, but Jimmie Johnson - a six-time Martinsville winner, who has a track-best average finish of 5.8 - gets the nod after winning the pole on Friday.

2. Denny Hamlin

Since the fall of 2009, Denny Hamlin has three wins here while Jimmie Johnson has been shutout of Victory Lane. So while today's pole-sitter may have been faster on Friday, it does seem that Hamlin has surpassed Johnson as the Martinsville master.

3. Jeff Gordon

In the spring, Jeff Gordon was dominant, leading 329 laps before a bonsai move late by Clint Bowyer took away a potential victory. Six months later the active Martinsville leader in wins, top-fives, top-10s and laps led is again quick; posting the second-fastest in the final two sessions of practice.

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