STP 500 Preview: Short-Track Survival

STP 500 Preview: Short-Track Survival

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

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 Auto Club Speedway. 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 paper clip when viewed from above, thus the nickname "the paper clip" 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 Sprint Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but qualifying and track position is of the utmost importance. If you start in the back of the field here, you can find yourself a lap down in a matter of minutes from the start of the race, so teams must place high priority on qualifying well. 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

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 Auto Club Speedway. 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 paper clip when viewed from above, thus the nickname "the paper clip" 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 Sprint Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but qualifying and track position is of the utmost importance. If you start in the back of the field here, you can find yourself a lap down in a matter of minutes from the start of the race, so teams must place high priority on qualifying well. 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 Sprint 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 11 years or 22 races at Martinsville Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson6.97501,0562,5759,425118.4
Denny Hamlin8.17687011,3158,293110.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.98005635218,32599.4
Kyle Busch15.17194214877,53396.5
Kevin Harvick14.76913754097,46994.6
Clint Bowyer13.76973023567,11292.5
Joey Logano14.94791814144,16689.7
Brad Keselowski14.84191461713,59287.8
Jamie McMurray16.85632161586,45286.9
Ryan Newman14.56121571386,25986.5
Matt Kenseth13.95572303816,09085.9
Carl Edwards15.5648165445,92781.5
Kurt Busch21.25331701585,54080.2
Brian Vickers19.2451109274,14479.4
Kasey Kahne20.5410269424,11577.5
A.J. Allmendinger20.741897453,34073.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.4392107513,92571.8
Greg Biffle19.641478393,37170.4
Aric Almirola22.431290562,22367.8
David Ragan21.33145602,50866.7

With the retirement of Jeff Gordon we will see a changing of the guard this season at Martinsville Speedway. He was our last winner at the Virginia short track, and it was his last of nine-career victories at the historic short track. With his retirement, the baton effectively passes to his teammate Jimmie Johnson. He is an eight-time winner at the Martinsville oval, and riding a pretty good hot streak into Virginia this weekend. In this event one year ago we saw the other Martinsville ace, Denny Hamlin, out-duel the field and grab his fifth-career win at this facility. Given how well Johnson and Hamlin are performing entering this week's STP 500, there is a good chance that either could continue their excellence at this facility. However, with the retirement of Gordon, we can't rule out a new driver emerging at Martinsville Speedway. We have a couple that have dominated from a laps led stand point but have come up short of victory lane for one reason or another. Joey Logano leads the series in laps led at Martinsville over the last four races there with 414. He also has captured two pole positions during that span, but has come up winless. Another name that we need to add to the contenders list is Kevin Harvick. He has led 192 laps at this short track in just the last two visits, and he won this event in 2011 for his only Martinsville victory in the Cup Series. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet comes to the paper clip this weekend as one of the hottest drivers in the series right now, and ripe to win his second-career victory at this historic short track. Brad Keselowski is surging after his big win at Las Vegas a couple weeks ago and his teammate Logano is a threat to win anytime he climbs behind the wheel this season. One thing is almost certain this weekend… with the parity that we currently have in NASCAR's top division we're more likely to be surprised by the outcome and eventual winner this Sunday afternoon. We'll take a look at the stats and streaks and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Martinsville Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
After a hard-fought victory at Fontana last race it will be good for the six-time champion to get back to action on a short track this week. With eight career wins at the Martinsville oval, Johnson is positioned to be one of the top drivers in this weekend's STP 500. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet won this event three years ago in dominant fashion. Johnson led 296 laps in this event two years ago, before being outdueled by Kurt Busch for the win. His grip on Martinsville Speedway has slipped just a bit over the last two seasons, but we should see the Johnson of old this weekend at the Virginia short track. With no Jeff Gordon around to challenge him, Johnson will be the top driver to beat in this event.

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 80-percent Top-10 rate here. With over 1,300-career laps led and 11 Top-5 finishes, Hamlin's excellence at this bull ring becomes clear. He's finished third in each of the last two races at Phoenix and Fontana, so he comes to Southern Virginia racing well. In this event one year ago, Hamlin led 91 laps and battled with the leaders all afternoon before finally winning last season's STP 500. He should be hungry for a run at the checkers and a sixth grandfather clock trophy this weekend.

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 top contenders here. Harvick won this event in 2011 for his first career victory at Martinsville Speedway. He's also finished inside the Top 10 in four of his last five races at the paper clip. Harvick has led over 550- 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 stealing a victory here in any start. With Jeff Gordon now out of the equation, this may be the best opportunity for Harvick to win at Martinsville in several seasons.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing ace has had a lot of up-and-down performances at the Virginia short track over the years, but of late showed signs of dramatic improvement. His last two seasons of racing at Martinsville has yielded over 400 laps led, two pole positions, and three Top-5 finishes. Something has been missing from the list of ingredients thus far to get the No. 22 Ford into victory lane at this facility. All the puzzle pieces may fall into place this weekend. Logano has a pair of Top-5 finishes in the last three races and carrying a lot of momentum into the foothills of Southern Virginia this week. If there is a surprise winner in the offing this Sunday afternoon, it will likely be Penske Racing star Logano.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt has not only maintained a solid resume at the paper clip over the years, he actually won his first-career victory at this oval two seasons ago. He led 79 laps in 2014's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 and won his first victory at Martinsville Speedway. Earnhardt has started this season well, so we have high expectations for the No. 88 Chevrolet team this weekend. Earnhardt has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five starts at this Virginia bull ring. The electronic loop stats clearly show that the Hendrick Motorsports star is one of the top performers at this oval and his high number of quality passes shows he knows how to come through traffic at this facility. Coming off the hard-fought 11th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, we know Earnhardt has to be motivated heading to Martinsville Speedway this Sunday.

Kyle Busch -
The Martinsville oval has been perplexing for Busch over the years, but he's shown some serious improvement in recent seasons of racing there. With Top-10 finishes in three of his last six starts at the paperclip he's pushed his career Top-10 average up to 48-percent. This is one of those ovals where the No. 18 Toyota leads quite a few laps and shows good speed, but the finishes haven't typically followed. However, that's been gradually changing since the 2012 season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's last start at Martinsville Speedway netted a fifth-place finish last November in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion should have no trouble duplicating his success from that performance this weekend.

Matt Kenseth -
The move to Joe Gibbs Racing a few seasons ago has really enhanced his performance and fantasy value at the flat short track of Martinsville Speedway. Kenseth has a runner-up finish and three other Top-10 finishes in his last five visits to Martinsville Speedway. Over that span the veteran driver has led well over 300 laps and gone from being a bystander to a contender at this historic short track. Kenseth had a good run going in his last start at Martinsville Speedway. However, a dust up between he and Joey Logano would turn ugly and see NASCAR park the No. 20 Toyota early in that 500-lap battle. We expect Kenseth to shake that off and fetch the Top 10 he would have earned at Martinsville last November.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress No. 31 team is looking to build an early-season hot streak and the best way to do that is to set Newman loose at Martinsville Speedway. The veteran driver owns three career poles and a 46-percent Top-10 rate at Martinsville Speedway. He was the surprise winner of this event in 2012, so there's no ruling out an outside shot at victory lane. Newman has led close to 200 career laps at the Virginia short track, so he's no stranger to racing at the front here. Rocket Man and his RCR team finished seventh last November at Martinsville Speedway and that makes two Top 10s out of his last three visits. He should be dialed-in for this one.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Martinsville who can provide a solid finish

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski has a short Martinsville resume, but it's filled with a lot of ups-and-downs. The Penske Racing driver hasn't had the kind of success at the small Virginia oval that he's had at the nearby Tennessee short track of Bristol. Despite all the inconsistency he still boasts a 50-percent Top-10 rate over 12 starts. Between both Martinsville events last season, Keselowski led 161 laps and he finished runner-up in the spring event. That was somewhat diminished by his 32nd-place here in the fall, but the No. 2 Ford was very strong none-the-less. He brings a lot of fantasy racing risk with his selection, but the rewards could be pretty tremendous.

Chase Elliott -
The Hendrick Motorsports rookie has shaken off crashes at both Daytona and Las Vegas to post three Top-10 finishes in the last four races. He's climbed from 28th to 16th in the driver standings in just the last three events. The No. 24 Chevrolet team has been giving him great cars and the talented young driver has been doing very well with them. Now he comes to a completely different style of oval this week. This will be Elliott's debut in a Cup car at Martinsville Speedway. However, he's not completely unacquainted with the Virginia short track. He made two starts here in the Camping World Truck Series in 2013 and grabbed sixth- and 20th-place finishes. That experience will come in handy without a doubt. The Hendrick team will give him a fantastic car to ease his learning curve quite a bit.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex hasn't started 2016 like he started last season, but he's been pretty good none-the-less. With a pair of Top 10s in the first five events, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota comes to Martinsville 11th in the driver points. The paper clip has not been a venue of much success for Truex over his career. However, his breakout year last season yielded a pair of sixth-place finishes at Martinsville Speedway. He also combined to lead 50 laps between those two starts. Those are some encouraging signs heading into this 500-lap battle in the foothills of Virginia. If the Furniture Row Racing team can qualify well, there's good reason to believe that Truex can race with the lead pack and finish up front this Sunday afternoon.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray has been making great gains to start the new season and his No. 1 Chevrolet team has been running well right out of the gates. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has always liked racing the flat oval in Virginia. McMurray owns 14 Top-10 finishes in 26 career starts at Martinsville Speedway. That includes a fourth-place qualifying spot and runner-up finish in the last race at the half-mile oval last November. That was one of two Top-10 finishes for the No. 1 CGR team at Martinsville last season. We're willing to bet he carries that level of performance into this battle at the paperclip. At a minimum he should be a Top-15 finisher in the STP 500.

Austin Dillon -
Coming off a tough finish at Auto Club Speedway, Dillon will be happy to see Martinsville Speedway. He's been a steady performer at the flat short track the last two seasons. Dillon has three Top-20 finishes in his four-career visits to Southern Virginia. The No. 3 RCR team has started the season on fire. Dillon has one pole position and three Top 10s in the first five races of 2016. Dillon and crew chief Slugger Labbe are clicking along and showing great improvement and great results. He'll bring the best car he's ever had at Martinsville into this Sunday's STP 500. Dillon will be capable of challenging the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Blaney -
After consecutive Top 10s at Las Vegas and Phoenix, Blaney came crashing back to Earth at Fontana in our last race. He crashed and finished 35th in the Auto Club 400 for his first DNF of the season. The young Wood Brothers Racing driver should rebound this week. Although it will be his first Sprint Cup start at the historic concrete oval in Southern Virginia, the place isn't completely unknown to Blaney. During his strong Camping World Truck Series career, he made five starts at the half-mile track. Blaney collected three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in those starts. While we have to take that with a grain of salt, we do have to recognize that those 1,100 + laps of racing have probably prepared him better for this tough debut than Chase Elliott.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kurt Busch -
With his poor performance at Auto Club Speedway, Busch saw his torrid start to the season cooled just a bit. The 30th-place finish at Fontana broke a string of four-straight Top 10s to start the season for the No. 41 team. The good news is that we're coming to an oval where Busch is a two-time winner. However, the bad news is that it's been a short track of struggles for the veteran driver. Busch has only five Top-10 finishes in 31-career starts (16%) at the Martinsville oval. For whatever reason he can lead laps and race up front here, but the good finishes simply don't follow. Some drivers are just snake bitten at certain tracks, and that would be the case here. The risks of starting Busch in the STP 500 far outweigh the gains.

Clint Bowyer -
The HScott Motorsports veteran is off to an incredibly poor start to the season. We don't see the misery ending for Bowyer this week, despite this being one of his favorite and more successful short tracks. We're recommending you bench his 60-percent Top-10 rate at Martinsville Speedway in light of his recent performances here and his current struggles. Bowyer finished uncharacteristic 13th- and 43rd-place at this oval last season in his last campaign at Michael Waltrip Racing. He has only one Top-20 finish in the first five events of 2016, and that's as poor a start as we can ever remember for this veteran driver. Bowyer comes to Martinsville Speedway 31st in the driver standings and desperately searching for answers.

Brian Vickers -
The No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing team will call on Vickers again this week to fill in for the injured Tony Stewart. This will be his fourth start of the season in relief of Smoke in the team's Chevrolet. The results to this point have been less-than-encouraging. Two finishes outside the Top 25 and one finish inside the Top 15 is all Vickers has to show for thus far. Martinsville Speedway has been a track of struggles for the veteran driver over the years. In 18 starts he's only collected three Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 19.3. Vickers hasn't raced here since 2014 due to his blood clots issue. So there will be some definite rust to fight through as he practices and races this weekend.

Kyle Larson -
The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver has had a tough start to the season. With only one Top 10 in the first five events, Larson finds himself a lowly 24th-place in the championship standings coming to Martinsville. Unfortunately, things might not get any better after the STP 500. Larson's resume is short here, but it's also full of disappointment. His four starts to-date have yielded finishes of 42nd-, 27th-, 30th- and 19th-place. Two of the starts have ended in DNF's for Larson. It could be that this young driver simply needs more experience at Martinsville Speedway before he can be a dependable performer at this facility.

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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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