Storylines Abundant Heading to Martinsville

It’s finally time for some good ‘ole short-track racing.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has returned to the East Coast after three weeks out west, as Martinsville Speedway will host the STP 500 this Sunday.

The shortest and oldest track in NASCAR will produce close quarters racing, strategy differences and is sure to flare up tempers. It’s no coincidence that Martinsville is regarded as a favorite amongst drivers.

WHAT: STP 500 (263 miles, 500 laps, stages of 130, 130 and 240 laps)

WHEN: Sunday, April 2. Green flag approx. 2:13 p.m. ET. TV on Fox Sports 1, radio on MRN

WHERE: Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia (0.526-mile short track)

FAVORITES: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson (6-1) & Brad Keselowski (8-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Kyle Busch dominated the paperclip in this race one year ago. He led 352 of the 500 laps en route to his first career victory at the short-track. He has 11 top five finishes and 12 top 10 finishes in his career at the track. He also has a driver rating of 99.9, which equates to third-best among active drivers. The No. 18 is sure to be a contender for the win again this season.


THE LINEUP

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Mother Nature got the best of NASCAR.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

One Camping World Truck Series practice as well as Cup qualifying were cancelled. The lineup, in event of a cancellation, will be determined based on owner points, putting Kyle Larson on the pole for the STP 500. Fellow youngster Chase Elliott will roll off in second place.

Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Ky. Busch will round out the top 10 starters (and owner point standings). Some notable starters include Denny Hamlin in 12th, Kurt Busch in 14th, Jimmie Johnson in 17th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 21st and Matt Kenseth in 25th.


BACK TO NASCAR’S ROOTS

Martinsville isn’t just an ordinary short-track. It’s so much more.

The track was built 70 years ago in 1947 and hosted its first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1948, the first year the sport existed. It’s been on the schedule ever since, never taking a year off. From The King, to The Intimidator, to Seven-Time and everybody in between, the shortest track in all of NASCAR has seen it all. It’s a beast of its own kind, and drivers must respect it.

You have the railroad tracks going along the backstretch, which have been a staple of the speedway since it’s inception. You have the grandfather clock, one of the most coveted trophies in all of motorsports. And of course, you have the hot dogs. The famed Martinsville hot dogs aren’t ridiculously priced like every other sports stadium in the world. They’re a measly $2. And from what I’ve heard, they’re nothing short of scrumptious.


CREW CHIEF CHANGES

After appealing the one-race suspension and fine last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Stewart-Haas Racing has opted to drop the appeal and have Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers serve his one-race suspension this weekend. Daniel Knost, a former crew chief for Danica Patrick on the No. 10 team, will serve as the interim crew chief for the No. 4 this weekend.

On the other hand, Team Penske has decided to now appeal the three-race suspension and fine of Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe. He served one race last weekend as Brian Wilson called the shots for the No. 2 crew on their way to a runner-up finish despite early race damage.

But the surprising news of the week came out of Joe Gibbs Racing. Dave Rogers, crew chief for Daniel Suarez and the No. 19 team, is taking an indefinite leave of absence for what the team called personal reasons. Scott Graves, who won the XFINITY title with Suarez in 2016 and with Chris Buescher in 2015, will be the interim crew chief. There is no timetable for Rogers’ return.


BIG GUNS READY TO SHOOT

Martinsville is by no means the house that Denny and Jimmie built. But they sure have done a good job marinating the foundation that guys like Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty put down.

Johnson is third all-time with nine wins at “The Paperclip” in Southern Virginia. He also adds 19 top five’s, 24 top 10’s and three poles to his already impressive resume. His driver rating of 117.7 and average finish of 6.7 are both series-bests.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

However, 2017 hasn’t been too kind to the seven-time champion. He has one top 10 finish (Phoenix) and sits outside the top 16 in points. But he’s the betting favorite for a reason: he’s great here. Don’t forget: the last time the MENCS was at the 0.526-mile track, he won and punched his ticket to the final four.

Hamlin has five career grandfather clocks to go along with two top five’s and 17 top 10’s. His average finish, average running position and average finish is second to, you guessed it, Johnson. The No. 11’s last win at Martinsville came in 2015, but with Joe Gibbs Racing off to a relatively slow start this season, a win for the Chesterfield, Va. native at his home track could be the needed shot in the arm for the Toyota organization early on in 2017.


THE START OF SOMETHING NEW?

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Kyle Larson’s victory last weekend in Fontana confirmed what we all were asking: when was he going to find victory lane? It was his second career MENCS victory and the first coming off three consecutive second place finishes. Chip Ganassi Racing is a top-tier organization right now, and Larson skyrocketed from 20-1 odds to win the 2017 title to 6-1 following last weekend.

But he doesn’t have much experience at Martinsville. In only six starts, he has one top five finish. His average finish is 22.5, but that’s sure to improve with his starting position (first), pit stall selection (first), CGR being as fast as they’ve been in nearly a decade and the confidence currently flowing throughout the No. 42 team, who also happens to be the points leader.


SLOW DOWN TO GO FAST

The drinking word for this weekend will be “brakes.”

A whopping 500 circuits around Martinsville can be hard on drivers physically and mentally. But the part of the race car that will take the biggest beating (besides the bumpers, because they’ll be used) will be the brakes. The rotors will be glowing red and melting beads of Goodyear tires throughout the afternoon. Whichever driver is able to make their brakes last all race long will be in a position to win when the checkered flag is flown. You can take that to the bank.

Pit road at Martinsville is also super tight. The pit boxes are among the smallest in NASCAR, pit road speed is a tortoise-like 30 mph and it stretches all the way from turn three to the exit of turn two. That’s 75 percent of the track. Teams and drivers will be cramped. But one thing remains the same: a mistake on pit road can cost you the race. We’ll see a handful on Sunday.

Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

PREDICTION

I forgot to make my predictions on Victory Lane this week *DOH* … I was too busy recovering from the awesome conversation with Elijah Burke. But fear not, I have my prediction here:

Joey Logano is going to earn his first grandfather clock and claim his first checkered flag of the season this weekend at The Paperclip. He has four top five’s, six top 10’s and three poles (two straight last season) at the short-track and has consistently run well. So mark it down: No. 22 will end up in victory lane … unless Rowdy decides to pay Joey back for Vegas.

As a dark horse for this weekend, though, go with Clint Bowyer. Coming off a third-place finish (his best since August 2015), he’s hot and is carrying the banner for SHR thus far.

NOTES

  • Atlanta Motor Speedway announced the repave of the 1.5-mile track is on hold until after the 2018 season. Dale Jr. broke the news on Twitter, and AMS confirmed it.
    • What does this mean? The drivers (and fans) have power. They both voiced their displeasure at the repave announcement. Marcus Smith and SMI listened.
  • Bristol Motor Speedway will add the sticky substance to the bottom groove for the races this season, including the one at BMS in two weeks.
    • The substance created a grip-filled bottom groove for drivers, reminding people of the “Old Bristol” rather than the rim-riding “New Bristol.”
  • The Camping World Truck Series is in action for this weekend’s race after a three-week hiatus. The Alpha Energy Solutions will go green on Saturday afternoon just past 3 p.m.
  • If necessary, the speedway will be able to race into the night. This weekend marks the first ever that Martinsville has a LED light system installed. If Mother Nature wreaks more havoc on the schedule, NASCAR now has a little breathing room.