Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton bring their own experience and analysis to NASCAR TV coverage on NBC. This week, the two spoke with the Bulletin about the Cup Series playoffs, and Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway.
(Editor's note: These interviews have been condensed and edited for space and clarity)
Martinsville Bulletin: Now that the final eight drivers are set, what are your thoughts? Were there any surprises or do you feel these have been the best eight cars all season?
Kyle Petty: Obviously I think you look at the three (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars, you look at Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) and (Martin) Truex and they have been mainstays in this sport, along with Kevin Harvick. And honestly Joey Logano for the last three or four years. They're the guys. Those are the guys that win the races, those are the guys that run up front. I think Kyle Larson was a little bit of a surprise just from the standpoint that a (Chip) Ganassi (Racing) car had never made it to the round of 8, so this is his first foray into the round of 8. And last week at Kansas it was a big surprise that Brad Keselowski was bumped out and that Chase Elliott was able to bump his way in. Now, I don't think it's a surprise that Chase Elliott should be in the round of 8, that's not what I'm saying, but it was a surprise the way he got in, by absolutely having a great race and racing himself in. Because I don't think there were a lot of people except true blue dyed in the wool Chase Elliott fans who believed he could do it. And Chase Elliott believed that he could do it. But the general consensus seemed to be that it was going to be tough to get in, but they overcame those odds to get in. So when I look at that I think okay, that's a little bit of a surprise. But the biggest surprise I think to me is Kyle Larson because he's not made it this far before.
Jeff Burton: I think Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are the two that surprised me a little bit. Earlier in the year Kyle Larson... they didn't have the speed, they didn't have the results of being a top 8 team. And I feel the same about Blaney and his team. I feel like they've been a step off of their Penske teammates, although lately they've been as good as their Penske teammates, but those are the two surprises.
Do you think there are four clear favorites for the championship at Homestead?
KP: I don't believe there is a clear cut favorite. Unlike last year where we came into Martinsville talking about the big three, talking about Truex, the Kyle Buschs, the Kevin Harvicks, this year it's been a little bit more of a streaky year for me. We've had guys get hot for five of six races and then cool off. I know it's been a while, 10 or 15 races, maybe more, since Kyle Busch has won a race, so even though he's up there running in the front and has been leading and doing all the things he's supposed to be doing and running in the top 5, he's just not broke through and been there consistently, just not won races. Where Kevin Harvick went on a streak right before the playoffs and won two or three races, Denny Hamlin got on a streak and just was unstoppable and winning races and being in the top 5. And Joey, these races are right in Joey Logano's wheelhouse. When we come to Martinsville, when we go to Texas, when we go to Phoenix, and Homestead, that fits his driving style. So is Joey Logano going to get on a streak these last four races and walk away with another championship? So I don't think there's a clear cut favorite, but I think there's interesting story lines in how they all got here and what they could do.
JB: I do not. I think this year I have found to be the most unpredictable. The one pattern has been Joe Gibbs Racing. They've been really good, but what is the best team within Joe Gibbs Racing has changed week to week. So I think team-wide, I think that Gibbs has the best opportunity, but which team within Gibbs confuses me a little bit. There's days I watch Kevin Harvick and think nobody can beat him. And then there's day that I think he won't have a enough speed to win a championship. It's just been one of those up and down years where there hasn't been a rhythm to it where you can point your finger and say here's the favorite.
It seems like if you ask every driver they're going to tell you something different, but what do you feel like, if you're a playoff driver trying to get into the final four, what's the key to making sure that you run your best at Martinsville?
KP: When we used to go up there we used to just say if you can survive until the last 50 laps you've got a chance at winning. Because it's a tough little racetrack. It's hard on equipment. It's a physical racetrack, it's an emotional racetrack where people beat and bang on you and you get mad and lose your mind inside your helmet. There's so many factors when you go up there. It's a tough little place, and the thing is I think these guys... we talk about the clock at Martinsville being the coolest trophy in racing, if not the coolest. These eight guys go into Matinsville and they do care, don't get me wrong. They don't care about the clock because they feel like if they can win at Martinsville they can make it to Homestead and win a championship and win a cup. So Martinsville to them is about a championship. Joey Logano came in there last year, did everything he needed to do, put himself in a position, and did a bump and run at the end of the race and won that race and went on to win a championship. That's how important Martinsville is to this round. Kyle Busch has said... after they won Martinsville it was almost like having two weeks off to prepare for the championship game. So it puts you in a different mindset going into the championship. So yes it's important to win at Martinville. It's important to do something in this first round. And the problem is you've got eight guys trying to do it, oh yea, along with the 30 other guys in the field that can win the race too. Because you've got Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch. Now you've got guys who are not in the championship race who can win too... and steal that victory and steal that opportunity. And then you've only got two races left to secure that golden ticket to Miami. Martinsville started for these teams weeks ago, preparing this car and making sure it is the best car that they can bring to Martinsville. That nothing breaks, that everything is the way it should be. And these drivers, once they got through Kansas last week, have thought about nothing else but Martinsville. So I think they're as prepared as they can be. There's nothing left to do but drop the green flag.
Do you think Martinsville is sort of in a sweet spot in the playoffs, because winning earlier gives you a chance to prepare for it more and winning here gives you a chance to focus on the championship?
JB: it's a a really interesting dynamic because if you look at the points and where they all are, Blaney and Larson can't afford to have bad races. They can't go to Martinsville and just say, 'Well it's not a good track for me, we're just going to have to get through the day.' Keep in mind everyone always talks about if you win you go to Miami and race for a championship. All of that is true, but at least one person is going to get into the race at Miami with points. At least one. And if you look at Blaney and if you look at Larson and you certainly look at statistics they have way better chance of not winning the next three races then they do winning the next three races. So they have look, all the teams do, they have to be looking at points. Points matter. They just can't afford to leave Martinsville and be way behind. Anything can happen, right? Anything can happen the next two races ,but in Blaney's case I think he has the great opportunity with two teammates and the availability of data to really look at what his teammates have been doing because they've been fast. Joey and Brad have been fast at Martinsville. I think there's an opportunity for Blaney to run better there than he's been running. And I think Kyle Larson... Kurt Busch has been pretty good at Martinsville. He's had good speed at Martinsville. There's an opportunity there to learn as well. The Penske cars have had speed at Martinsville. Set up matters, cars matter. I think Blaney can lean on that a little bit and try to get as much out of his car as his teammates have gotten out of theirs.
Who among the playoffs drivers do you think has the best chance at a win this week, and who is the dark horse who could sneak out with a win?
KP: My dark horse is going to be Kyle Larson. I think if Kyle Larson comes out of there with a top-5 it's been a huge day for Kyle Larson, so he's going to be my dark horse for the win.
That's a good question because I can give you a reason why Denny Hamlin is my favorite, I can give you reasons why Martin Truex is my favorite, I can give you reasons why Kyle Busch is my favorite. Or Joey Logano is my favorite... Those guys are the guys. They're the guys at Martinsville. And that's how it is. Kevin, he's okay there but not had the success that those others guys have had there. Blaney runs good there, could this be a breakthrough for him? I don't know. It's really tough to narrow it down. Denny probably stands out more. If I had to pick one I would say Denny just because Denny is coming off of a huge win for them at just the right time at Kansas to gain that momentum... To be able to get back on a little bit of a roll to carry that into Miami.
JB: I think Kyle Busch has the best chance to win this week. I think the majority of people will say Denny Hamlin because of Denny's success there, but he hasn't won there in four years. If you look at the stats, Kyle Busch has been better over the last three, four, five races. I like to look at recent stats. I like to look at things as they are today. I won a lot of races at a particular racetrack but didn't run good there for multiple years. What's happening now is what really matters.
Once we get to this point in the year it's kind of hard to call them a dark horse because they are in the final eight. I go back to Penske, and I go back to how much speed those cars have had at Martinsville. People are kind of writing off Blaney. It will not surprise me to see them run better this week at Martinsville than he has run there. Martinsville is tough, it's a very difficult racetrack. Some people just never get it. But I think the Penske cars are going to run well this week. So I just don't want to write Blaney off... because the Penske speed is there, and I don't see that going away.
Do you feel like drivers like Denny and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who have had so much success at Martinsville, do you think they're coming in this weekend with a little bit more comfort than they would at other racetracks?
KP: Yes. I've seen a couple of interviews with Denny this week and he is extremely confident. But he's carried a different confidence this year to the racetrack. I think Kyle Busch, he looks at it and says this is place that we can get on a roll and kind of get our stuff turned around. And I think Joey feels the same way. I think Joey Logano had one of the ugliest rounds I've ever seen in the playoff series the last round, had an axle come out in the first lap before the race even started at Dover, got in wreck at Talladega and still salvaged something out of that, and then last week got spun there with four or five laps to go and had to fight to finish... to move on to this round. So that was an ugly, ugly way to make it to the round of 8, so I think those guys have got to get back up on the horse and make something happen. I think all those guys, there's a little bit extra incentive for a Kyle Busch or Joey Logano to really make something happen when they get there.
JB: I don't think anybody goes into Martinsville with comfort. It's too aggressive. It's a short track and there's so many good cars out there... You can have the best race car there and kind of almost do nothing wrong and still finish 10th with it. Because if you get on the wrong line on the last restart, if you have a bad pit stop... if there's a wreck in front of you you can't avoid it. It's just one of those tracks, almost like Talladega, where you can't go into the race feeling like today is going to go well because it can all be going well and be pulled out from underneath you. And sometimes it's not even your fault. When you put that many cars with this much on the line on that size racetrack you can expect to see fireworks. You can expect to see what we have been seeing... Think about the last races we've had there in the playoffs. They're intense. So I just don't think anybody can go in there feeling good.
Other than picking a winner, do you have any other bold predictions for Sunday?
KP: I think Jimmie Johnson, I think the Chevys and I think Jimmie can run really good there. Really good. You know what he can do there, and let's go back a few years when we saw Jeff Gordon win that race and the crowd went wild and that was a time in Jeff's career when people didn't think that he was going to come back. Jimmie is not at that that time, don't get me wrong. Jimmie can still win tons of races, but at the same time they've fallen on some flat times here, so I think Jimmie can be that guy. And I think Brad Keselowski is going to play a part in this race. I think he's just mad enough by not making it to the round of eight that he's going to prove to everybody that he could have been the champion. And he may go on and win the next four races in a row.
JB: I expect the Gibbs cars to run really well and I expect Chase Elliott to run really well. Those are the things I feel really good about. And there will be at least one, probably two drivers in the top eight that leave there almost in a must-win situation. It's Martinsville and stuff happens. If a guy is running 12th all day and all of his competition is running top-6, top-7, it can put a hurting on you with points. And some of those drivers just cannot afford to lose points.