Pain Relief 500 Preview: Short-Track Survival

Pain Relief 500 Preview: Short-Track Survival

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The NASCAR Cup Series continues its short-track schedule this week as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Va., for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.  

This week marks the second short-track race in consecutive events.  Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straightaways.  We just witnessed tire preservation and issues with tire wear at Bristol on the dirt.  We will see a similar game played at the Martinsville oval.  

Brake preservation is the name of the game in Martinsville because you essentially have two long drag strips with hairpin corners on either end.  The oval looks very much like a paperclip when viewed from above, thus the nickname "the paperclip" has taken hold over the years.  Taking care of your brakes for the full 500 laps becomes as important as passing on this tricky short track.  Like any bull ring in the Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but getting and maintaining good track position is of the utmost importance.  If you get stuck in the back of the field here, you can find yourself a lap down in a matter of minutes from the start or any restart, so teams must place high priority on getting and keeping good track position.  You won't be able to race your way through traffic and back toward the front as easily here as last race at Bristol Motor Speedway.  Track position

The NASCAR Cup Series continues its short-track schedule this week as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Va., for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.  

This week marks the second short-track race in consecutive events.  Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straightaways.  We just witnessed tire preservation and issues with tire wear at Bristol on the dirt.  We will see a similar game played at the Martinsville oval.  

Brake preservation is the name of the game in Martinsville because you essentially have two long drag strips with hairpin corners on either end.  The oval looks very much like a paperclip when viewed from above, thus the nickname "the paperclip" has taken hold over the years.  Taking care of your brakes for the full 500 laps becomes as important as passing on this tricky short track.  Like any bull ring in the Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but getting and maintaining good track position is of the utmost importance.  If you get stuck in the back of the field here, you can find yourself a lap down in a matter of minutes from the start or any restart, so teams must place high priority on getting and keeping good track position.  You won't be able to race your way through traffic and back toward the front as easily here as last race at Bristol Motor Speedway.  Track position will become so important over the course of the race that you will see teams chose either not to pit certain cautions, or to take on two tires in order to grab valuable track position on pit road.  All these factors make any Martinsville race a battle of survival and often times the best equipment preservation and pit strategy wins. 

Since Martinsville Speedway is like no other track on the NASCAR Cup circuit, we'll have to pay close attention to the loop stats this week.  Recent historical statistics at Martinsville will be one of the biggest considerations in our weekly projections.  Hot streaks go out the window to a certain extent when we visit this facility, so it's these recent numbers that require close scrutiny.  The loop stats in the table below span the last 16 years or 32 races at Martinsville Speedway. 

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin9.91,0249841,60812,039105.0
Kyle Busch12.29728851,42912,071102.7
Brad Keselowski10.27706418918,10599.8
Ryan Blaney10.72252032153,52398.5
Joey Logano12.47134761,0838,62097.3
Chase Elliott14.52743804293,71795.3
Kevin Harvick13.995056548111,33593.8
Martin Truex Jr.17.06465609878,64684.4
Ryan Newman14.38522111388,88283.8
Kurt Busch19.18282401819,21082.0
William Byron21.01277101,41074.9
Kyle Larson22.429752353,12573.6
Aric Almirola21.5485204754,52570.7
Erik Jones20.41282601,36970.4
Austin Dillon19.92378462,37368.7
Alex Bowman20.41346411,66966.5
Tyler Reddick20.0316034866.3
Daniel Suarez21.11252801,29364.4
Cole Custer21.011311036063.5
Christopher Bell21.51110014161.0

In this event one year ago we saw Martin Truex Jr. outmaneuver Joey Logano and grab his second-consecutive victory at this facility.  That has been more the trend of late.  Once a driver and crew chief figure out this small oval, they're usually set up to contest for multiple wins over a short span of time.  We could be in store for another Truex or other recent Martinsville winner to pull into victory lane this Saturday night.  When the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Martinsville Speedway last fall, it would be Chase Elliott sweeping into victory lane for the first time at the track and foiling a trio of Penske Racing Ford drivers who were all in the hunt for the win.  Once again, Logano would be in the mix and a Top-5 finisher once more.  We'll take a look at the recent track stats and hot streaks and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Martinsville Speedway in the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing ace has become a pretty dominant force at the Martinsville short track since 2014.  His last seven seasons of racing at Martinsville has yielded well over 1,000 laps led, one victory, seven Top-5 and 10 Top-10 finishes.  Logano rides a three-race Martinsville Top-10 streak with over 250 laps led coming into this weekend's action.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford Mustang is coming off the big Bristol Dirt Race win of two weekends ago, so he rides that momentum into Saturday night's race.  With an average finish of 5.0 across his last three Martinsville Speedway starts, we're confident Logano will race with the leaders and contend for the win in Saturday night's 500-lap battle. 

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski has elevated his game to dramatic levels at the historic Virginia short track since the 2015 season.  The Penske Racing star struggled for much of his first five seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series at this track, but turned it around in a big way a few seasons ago.  Keselowski is a two-time Martinsville winner (2017 and 2019) and has strung together an amazing nine Top-5 finishes in his last 10 starts at Martinsville Speedway.  That string includes his current five-race Top-5 streak at the facility.  When looking at the numbers, it's really amazing that the driver of the No. 2 Ford hasn't won more than just two Martinsville events.  Keselowski finished third in this event one year ago, and a strong fourth in last November's Xfinity 500.

Martin Truex Jr. – Much like Brad Keselowski, it took Truex a number of years to build himself into a Martinsville winner.  The light bulb seemingly flipped on in 2017, and it has been shining bright ever since.  Truex has two victories in his last three Martinsville starts, and five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his last seven starts at the historic short track.  The average finish across that recent span stands at a scintillating 5.6.  The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been so dialed-in at this oval the last two seasons that Truex has led a whopping 725 laps in his last three starts alone.  This driver and team led a lot of laps at Bristol two weeks ago before running into trouble, so it would seem to indicate Truex will have a fast race car this Saturday night.    

Ryan Blaney – Blaney has yet to capture his first Martinsville victory, but he's been knocking pretty loudly on the door of late.  The young driver carries a four-race Martinsville Top-5 streak into this weekend's action, and he has captured Top 10's in six of his last seven Martinsville Speedway starts.  Those performances have lowered his career average finish at the facility to a strong 10.7.  Blaney was a runner-up finisher in both Martinsville races in 2020, so he's painfully close to breaking through to victory lane at this oval.  Penske Racing has been the most dominant stable in the NASCAR Cup Series at the Virginia short track the last few seasons, so it really wouldn't be any surprise to see Blaney surge into victory lane in this weekend's Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is usually one of the drivers to beat each time we visit Martinsville Speedway.  The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is a five-time winner at the Martinsville oval and he sports a stellar 70-percent Top-10 rate here.  With over 1,600-career laps led and 15 Top-5 finishes, Hamlin's excellence at this bull ring is quite clear.  He's won here as recently as this event in 2015, and he's finished inside the Top 5 in three of his last five Martinsville starts.  The veteran driver is off to a great start this season, and he finished a brilliant third in the Bristol Dirt Race two weeks ago.  Hamlin should be hungry for a run at the Top-5 and possibly the win in Saturday night's battle under the lights.

William Byron – The 2021 season is off to a great start for Byron and the No. 24 Chevrolet team.  The young driver enters Martinsville weekend with one win and five Top-10 finishes to start the season.  Byron is a lofty sixth in the championship standings and he's racing every bit the part each week.  Martinsville Speedway has begun to yield some success to the Hendrick Motorsports youngster.  Two of Byron's last three starts at the paperclip shaped track have netted Top-10 finishes, including a brilliant runner-up finish in the Fall of 2019.  His last outing here was an unfortunate crash and DNF last November, but we're willing to give Byron a mulligan on that one.  He's racing extremely well right now and should be a Top-10 driver in the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.   

Kyle Larson – The new Hendrick Motorsports star has a long, painful history at the Martinsville short track, but he began to show some signs of a reversal in his last start.  Larson peddled to a strong ninth-place finish in the First Data 500 at the end of 2019 for former boss, Chip Ganassi.  He didn't get to display what he learned at this track in 2020 due to his suspension from NASCAR.  However, Larson is ready to make his first start at the historic short track for new boss, Rick Hendrick.  The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet is off to a great start this season and has four Top-10 finishes in his last five races entering Martinsville weekend.  He had a bit of a letdown on the Bristol dirt last race, but should rebound nicely in Southern Virginia.      

Chase Elliott – Our last Martinsville winner checks in on the solid plays list this week.  The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion is not off to the greatest of starts this season, but he's generally been a Top-10 driver most weeks.  Elliott is coming off a solid Top 10 on the Bristol dirt and looking for even better results this week.  The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet won last November's Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway and it would propel Elliott to the 2020 championship the following week at Phoenix.  That win was his first at the Virginia short track, but it added to a resume of success at the half-mile oval.  Elliott now has six Top 10's in 11-career starts at this track for a robust 55-percent Top-10 rate.  Five of his last six starts at this speedway have fetched Top-10 results.  Elliott should be in really good shape for this 500-lap battle under the lights. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Martinsville & solid upside

Kevin Harvick – We always think highly of Harvick when it comes to short track racing and his Martinsville resume is pretty strong outside of the solid plays and top contenders here.  Harvick won this event in 2011 for his first career victory at Martinsville Speedway.  He's also five Top-10 finishes in his last seven Martinsville starts.  Harvick has led over 600- career laps at the Southern Virginia short track, so he has no shortage of experience here.  The Stewart Haas Racing star doesn't have the trophies at this oval that he does at others, but he's capable of turning in a good performance.  The No. 4 Ford team has been pretty consistent this season, so Harvick brings a lot of upside into this Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500. 

Kurt Busch – This weekend we're visiting an oval where Busch is a two-time winner.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has been turning around some career-long struggles at this oval with four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Martinsville Speedway.  We believe he's starting to put his inconsistency issues at this historic short track behind him.  Busch's recent 80-percent Top-10 rate here has elevated his career Top-10 rate to just 22-percent.  Many fantasy racing players may over look Busch for that reason, but it would be a mistake.  His start here last November netted 23 laps led and a strong fifth-place finish in the Xfinity 500.  The veteran Chip Ganassi Racing driver has become a top fantasy racing consideration each time the series visits Martinsville Speedway.

Kyle Busch – Busch has looked a bit more human and less Superman in his last three starts at Martinsville.  Thus we've moved him from the top of the fantasy lists to the sleepers for this weekend.  Still, we have to respect his career-long achievements at this short track.  Busch is a two-time Martinsville winner and he has 16 Top-5 and 18 Top-10 finishes to his credit.  Those check in at a robust 52- and 58-percent rate respectively.  Another factor pulling Busch down a bit this week is his recent racing.  He's been way more competitive on the larger ovals in 2021 than the series' short tracks.  It summary, this is a great short track for the Joe Gibbs Racing star, but he's more likely a tail of the Top 10 driver than a top contender in this race.        

Matt DiBenedetto – DiBenedetto's early career of Cup racing at Martinsville is very forgettable, but the fortunes of this journeyman driver began to change in 2019 at this facility.  The Wood Brothers Racing driver has posted the best three finishes of his career at this oval in his last three starts.  The 16th-, seventh- and 10th-place results for DiBenedetto are hard to ignore.  As his equipment has improved over the last couple seasons, so has his racing skills at this track.  DiBenedetto has generally been a Top-15 driver of late with recent finishes of 14th-, 11th- and 13th-place in the three events leading up to Martinsville Speedway this week.  It would seem the driver of the No. 21 Ford is tabbed to crack the Top 15 and possibly challenge the Top 10 in Saturday night's Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.     

Ryan Newman – Coming off a strong Top-5 finish on the Bristol dirt in our last event, Newman now sets his sights on one of his favorite short tracks this week.  The small oval in Virginia has held lots of success for the driver of the No. 6 Ford over the years.  Newman owns three pole positions, one win and 17 Top-10 finishes in 38 starts at Martinsville Speedway.  That works out to a respectable 14.8 average finish and 45-percent Top-10 rate.  The veteran driver has nabbed finishes of 10th-, 12th- and 18th-place at Martinsville since moving to Roush Fenway Racing.  So his recent average finish of 13.3 is even better than his career-long average finish at the paperclip shaped track.  Newman should be a top performer in this 500-lap short-track battle.   

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has been one of the pleasant surprises of 2021.  Stenhouse is fresh off a strong runner-up finish on the Bristol dirt and he has cracked the Top 15 in each of his last five races leading up to this weekend.  That has Stenhouse positioned a lofty 14th-place in the driver standings coming to Southern Virginia this week.  While the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet doesn't have the best career numbers at this track with just two Top 10's in 16-career starts, he does bring some great potential to the table this week.  As a good comparison, Stenhouse bucked his career trends to post a solid 12th-place finish at the Phoenix oval a few weeks ago.  It seems that the No. 47 team with crew chief Brian Pattie are making some gains with Stenhouse in 2021.  It's not to be overlooked in this grueling struggle at Martinsville Speedway.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Aric Almirola – Almirola's struggles at Bristol two weekends ago is likely a preview of what to expect at Martinsville Speedway this Saturday night.  The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is better suited for starts on superspeedways and intermediate ovals.  In 24-career starts at the Virginia short track, Almirola has only come away with five Top-10 finishes (21-percent rate) and only one of those have come in the last three visits.  With DNF's in two of his last three Martinsville starts, there are some good reasons to doubt.  With an average finish for his career that checks in around 21.5, there are better ovals in this driver's resume.  Almirola's poor start to the 2021 season does little to help improve our opinion of his chances this Saturday evening. 

Alex Bowman – Bowman is another driver who's is better suited for the larger ovals and cookie cutter tracks.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver suffered through some struggles on the dirt at Bristol in our last race and that's illustrative of what to expect this weekend.  Bowman has been far better on the intermediate ovals in 2021 than the short tracks thus far.  Martinsville Speedway has held little success for this driver in 10-career starts.  Bowman has only managed three Top-10 finishes in those efforts and a very subpar 20.4 average finish.  While a middle-teens finish is not out of the question if Bowman stays out of trouble, that's far below fantasy-worthy performance for using a start of this driver and team in weekly lineup leagues.              

Ross Chastain – The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has stumbled out of the gates in 2021.  Chastain has just one Top-10 finish through the first seven events and comes to Virginia a distant 26th-place in the championship standings.  The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet labored to a crash and 35th-place finish on the Bristol dirt recently and will look to hit the reset button coming to Martinsville Speedway.  Unfortunately for the journeyman driver, four prior starts at the half-mile oval have yet to yield a Top-25 finish.  Granted, those starts were with lesser teams, but still bear consideration.  To this point in the 2021 campaign the intermediate ovals appear to be Chastain's best tracks, and the short tracks need to be avoided with all haste.      

Austin Dillon – The No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team is off to a great start this season.  With a pair of Top-10 finishes so far, Dillon is riding a comfortable 11th-place in the point standings coming to Martinsville.  This driver and team are generally racing inside the Top 10 or Top 15 each week, no matter where NASCAR is visiting.  Dillon's career at the paperclip shaped track has only yielded two Top 10's in 14-career starts.  The 14-percent Top-10 rate and 19.9 average finish don't inspire much in the way of expectations this weekend.  Last season Dillon posted uninspiring finishes of 37th- and 23rd-place at Martinsville Speedway.  This is a weekend to put Dillon and the No. 3 Chevrolet team on the fantasy racing bench. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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