Mash The Gas: Martinsville Preview

The .526 mile paperclip shaped short track at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia. [Credit: Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images]

The .526 mile paperclip shaped short track at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia. [Credit: Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back east to the oldest and smallest track on the circuit as the Martinsville Speedway hosts the STP 500 Sunday afternoon.

Martinsville’s paper-clip shape with tight concrete corners produces lots of full contact racing and tests the limits of the cars, especially the brakes. Historically, four drivers have dominated the action at Martinsville over the last decade and two of them, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are no longer actively driving. That leaves Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as the two main favorites this week but with five different winners in the first five races, this season has proven that everybody has stepped up their game.

The STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway will feature tight old-school style short track racing and here are some drivers to watch…

Kyle Busch (Dan Margetta)
I know everybody wants to talk about Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin this week, but I’m going with the guy that won this race a year ago as my main pick this week. Kyle Busch has been very close to breaking into the win column this season and like last year, he could do it this weekend at Martinsville. Busch has eleven top five finishes and twelve top tens to go along with his victory here and he owns the third best Driver Rating. His last three Martinsville finishes have been fifth, first, and fifth and Martinsville’s aggressive format fits his style. He comes into Martinsville at 6-1 odds to win and look for Kyle Busch to attack the tight paper-clip oval on Sunday. At the end of the day don’t be surprised if Kyle Busch is the sixth different face on the 2017 winners list.

Chase Elliott (John Wiedemann)
Kyle Larson got his first win of the season, now it is time for Chase Elliott to get his. Elliott hasn’t been very good at Martinsville in the past. In three races, he has a 23rd place average finish. That stat is a bit skewed by his first race at Martinsville where he damaged the front end early and finished 38th. Since then the trajectory of his finishes have been on the climb with runs of 20th and 12th last season. Qualifying tenth and fifth for those races have helped as starting up front at the short track is a huge advantage. Elliott is a quick learner and his results this season have been fantastic, placing him second in the standings. Elliott races for the team with the best Martinsville results and I predict he will show that he belongs by ending up in victory lane this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (DM)
Get excited Junior Nation because Martinsville is a place Dale Earnhardt Jr. can really shine. Like the Speedway, Dale Jr. is old-school and he seems to know how to survive races at the Martinsville bull ring. He has one Martinsville victory to go along with thirteen top fives and eighteen top ten finishes and enters this weekend at enticing 15-1 odds to win. While he didn’t race in the Fall event here, Dale Earnhardt Jr. does have top ten finishes in four of his last six Martinsville races. This may be Dale Jr.’s best chance to grab a victory and solidify his place in the playoffs later in the year.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
Kevin Harvick needs a win, well he needs a solid weekend. With two top ten finishes sandwiched between three frustrating races, Harvick needs to turn the season around. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an emergency or something to worry about, but life can’t be fun with the #4 team. It looks like this will be the week that Harvick will be missing his crew chief after keeping him atop the pitbox at California on appeal. Maybe it will be good to get that issue behind them and move forward this weekend. Harvick has a win at Martinsville back in 2011 with Richard Childress Racing. In six races with Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick has three top ten finishes but mistakes in some of those races have cost him wins. Will this be a weekend of redemption for Harvick or more of the same and nightmares of the past?

Matt Kenseth (DM)
Normally you wouldn’t think of Martinsville as a place to turn around a season of bad luck, especially if you are Matt Kenseth who has crashed out of three of the first five races this season. However, while Martinsville was once one of Kenseth’s worst tracks, he has run well here since his move to Joe Gibbs Racing four years ago. Tagged with 8-1 odds to win this week, Kenseth has recorded top ten finishes in five of his last seven races here and overall he owns six top five finishes and thirteen top tens. Kenseth desperately needs a strong race to right the ship this season and surprisingly Martinsville could be the place that happens in the STP 500 on Sunday.

Joey Logano (JW)
Joey Logano has yet to win at Martinsville, but it sure looks like he is due for that first victory. Qualifying isn’t an issue as Logano has been in the top three starting positions in the last six races with three poles including the top spot in the last two spring races. Logano has led laps in all six of those races including 207 in the fall race of 2015, a run up front that was ended by Matt Kenseth. The results of those six races were three top fives, 37th (thanks to Kenseth) and most recently a 11th and 9th place finish. Martinsville is an old school race track but that doesn’t mean that racing hard for every position like Logano does is necessarily the best strategy. Expect Joey to run at the front again this week and be in contention.

Clint Bowyer (DM)
Clint Bowyer is back this season and I’m making him my long shot pick this weekend. While Bowyer has never won at Martinsville and enters the weekend at 25-1 odds, he does have four top five finishes and twelve top ten results here. Plus, he’s coming off a strong third place run last week at California and is noticeably more excited to be at the race track this season. Before last season’s miserable results with a different team, Bowyer had rattled off five straight top ten finishes at Martinsville. Bowyer and the #14 team have been consistently strong to start this season, having improved each week and Sunday at Martinsville could see them return to victory lane to end a long winless streak.

AJ Allmendinger (JW)
It’s easy to forget about AJ Allmendinger, but then at the end of a race at Martinsville – there he is. In seventeen races at the paperclip track, Allmendinger has finished 15th or better eleven times. Two of those races he finished in the runner-up position, which is where he finished last year’s spring race. Qualifying has improved for AJ as well with four consecutive top ten starts and two of those in the top four. Starting at the front is a big deal at Martinsville as it gives you choice pit stall selection and keeps you out of the bumping and grinding of sheet metal back in the pack. Expect AJ to be at the front in this race and at Martinsville, if you are near the front – anything can happen.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to watch Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin too.

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