The most watched driver on Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway won't be the Chase leader Brad Keselowski, or the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is only seven points behind, or any of the other playoff drivers still within striking distance of the Sprint Cup title. Rather, attention will be riveted to someone who isn't even in championship contention, but someone who hasn't raced the last two weeks. Yes, all eyes will be trained on Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular figure, who is returning to the track after sitting out the races at Charlotte and Kansas with a concussion.
To review: Eight weeks ago Earnhardt wrecked hard into the Turn One wall at Kansas Speedway during a tire test. He didn't tell anyone outside of his team, but the crash -- which measured at 40-Gs -- caused Earnhardt to suffer a concussion. Then, three weeks ago at Talladega, Earnhardt got caught up in the Big One on the final lap and was concussed again, this time in a hit that measured only 20-Gs.
So Earnhardt, concerned about the recurring injury, sat out two races -- the only two races he's missed in his 13-year Cup career -- hoping the headaches and other symptoms would dissipate. Now Earnhardt, who is dead last among the 12 playoff drivers, will be piloting his No. 88 Chevy on Sunday at a track where he has 14 career top-10 finishes, tied with Daytona for the most at any track on the Cup schedule.
Earnhardt received the green light to race from Charlotte-based neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty after Earnhardt was evaluated following a 123-lap test on Monday at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia. Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Letarte, tweeted after the practice session that his driver "looks great and ran some awesome laps."
Now the question is this: Can Earnhardt be competitive on Sunday? I think so. After all, the son of the Intimidator has a history of seizing big moments. Back in 2001 he won at Daytona only six months after his father passed away at the track -- a victory that many in NASCAR still consider the most dramatic and emotionally charged of the 21st century. Earnhardt also reached Victory Lane in a Nationwide race at Daytona in 2010 in the one -- and only -- time he's driven his dad's old car number, the famed No. 3.
So Earnhardt possesses a keen sense of theater, and it says here that the magic will reappear in the hills of Southern Virginia on Sunday at NASCAR's shortest track. Earnhardt has never won at the .533-mile oval, but he's my pick to the take the checkers and -- at least for one Sunday -- overshadow what is shaping up to be one of the most compelling Chase finishes in the nine-year history of the playoff format.
Here are four other drivers that I'll be paying close attention to at Martinsville -- the foursome that is currently ranked 1-4 in the standings:
1. Brad Keselowski
For a brief time last Sunday, it appeared that Keselowski was going to be able to light-foot it to the title. Just past the halfway point at Kansas, Jimmie Johnson spun and backed into the Turn 4 wall; at that moment Johnson's title hopes looked doomed, but then Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus and his pit crew frantically fixed Johnson's No. 48 Chevy during several stops. Johnson rallied to a ninth place finish while Keselowski came in eighth. Consider this an opportunity missed for Keselowski -- and quite possibly the turning point in the Chase.
Why? Because Keselowski has historically been an average driver at Martinsville. In five career starts at the short track Keselowski has never finished higher than ninth. He's led only a grand total of two laps and has an average finish of only 13.4. He'll need to better than that on Sunday to maintain his place atop the standings.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson knows that his crew likely saved his season at Kansas. Though his car looked like something you'd find in a scrapyard, he still managed a top-10 run, which is precisely how championships are won in NASCAR.
"I took my time getting up to speed [after the wreck] and the car felt fine," Johnson said earlier this week. "In traffic it did act different. I had to be aware of where I put myself around other cars because the car would lose some grip then... It wasn't pretty. It wasn't efficient. ... [But] it drove well. That's what allowed me to work traffic like I did to allow me get up inside the top 10."
In each of his five championship seasons, Johnson has escaped disaster at least once and then -- usually the following race -- made the rest of the Chase field pay with an impressive run. That's exactly what I think will happen on Sunday. Johnson has six career wins at Martinsville and an average finish of 5.8 in 21 career starts. Expect a top-three on Sunday for the No. 48 team, which is bringing a spanking new car to the track this weekend that Knaus and Co. have been working on for months.
3. Denny Hamlin
After he finished 13th at Kansas, Hamlin sent out the following tweet to his 184,000 followers: "Damn we sucked today. Time for MAX points."
For Hamlin, who trails Keselowski by 20 points (the equivalent of 20 positions on the track) to have a shot at the title, he probably needs to win two of the final four races and then hope that both Johnson and Keselowski struggle in at least one event. No question, Hamlin is now officially a long shot to capture his first Cup title, because he no longer controls his own championship destiny.
Hamlin should be fast on Sunday. He's won three of the last six races at Martinsville and led at least 31 laps in each of the last seven events at the short track. Hamlin realizes he's in a points hole, so he'll be as aggressive as he's been all season once the green flag flies. He's not hiding the fact that he'll take some risks in order to try to lead the most laps, reach Victory Lane, and earn those "MAX points."
4. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer has had an impressive Chase. He's finished in the top 10 in six of the seven races and he reached Victory Lane two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He won't win the championship -- he's 25 points behind Keselowski -- but Bowyer is clearly a threat to take at least one more checkered flag in 2012.
But it won't happen at Martinsville. In 13 starts here Bowyer has consistently ridden around in 10th to 15th position. His average finish at the short track finish is 14.7. And on Sunday -- in a race that I think will be remembered for Earnhardt's triumphant return -- Bowyer will again be a mid-pack Chase driver.