STP 500 Preview: Short Track Survival

STP 500 Preview: Short Track Survival

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series ended their west coast swing and travels back east this week as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Virginia for the STP 500. The Martinsville event marks the return to short tracks after the race at the two-mile oval in Fontana, California.  Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straight-aways.  We just witnessed tire preservation and issues with tire wear at both Phoenix and Fontana.  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 Monster Energy 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.  You won't be able to race your way through traffic and back toward the front as easily here as last week

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series ended their west coast swing and travels back east this week as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Virginia for the STP 500. The Martinsville event marks the return to short tracks after the race at the two-mile oval in Fontana, California.  Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straight-aways.  We just witnessed tire preservation and issues with tire wear at both Phoenix and Fontana.  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 Monster Energy 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.  You won't be able to race your way through traffic and back toward the front as easily here as last week at Auto Club 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 Monster Energy 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 14 years or 28 races at Martinsville Speedway. 

DriverAvg. 
Finish
Quality
Passes
# Fastest 
Laps
Laps
Led
Laps in 
Top 15
Driver 
Rating
Jimmie Johnson7.79321,1342,69111,802113.3
Denny Hamlin9.89338901,53610,649107.0
Kyle Busch12.38578131,42410,538104.2
Brad Keselowski11.86465114376,35696.8
Joey Logano13.26043718256,76794.9
Kevin Harvick14.38445104819,70294.0
Clint Bowyer13.88154615728,86291.5
Ryan Blaney15.7120481451,71387.1
Ryan Newman14.07531921387,95085.7
Chase Elliott16.61681321432,08284.8
Kurt Busch20.66652251587,68080.6
Martin Truex Jr.18.45672732626,79178.9
Kyle Larson24.223348292,41772.5
Austin Dillon18.51724361,74771.4
Erik Jones20.34410053868.5
Aric Almirola21.5379124563,17868.3
Daniel Suarez18.55716045366.7
Paul Menard19.738743102,78665.1
David Ragan22.33207602,51462.4
William Byron29.52204057.7

In this event one year ago we saw Clint Bowyer out-duel Kyle Busch and grab his first-career victory at this facility.  That has been more the trend of late.  With the retirement of so many veteran drivers the last few seasons, we're seeing a new set of drivers rise to dominance at this half-mile oval.  We could be in store for another first-time Martinsville winner this Sunday afternoon.  Many of the young drivers will be battling fender-to-fender with the short track veterans like Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Busch and Joey Logano.It should make for an interesting mix of rising stars and established veterans, vying for the win.  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

Kyle BuschWith two victories and two runner-up finishes in his last six Martinsville starts, Busch has become the driver to beat each time we visit this small oval.  His last start at the half-mile paperclip saw the No. 18 Toyota lead 100 laps and survive a wild battle to claim a strong fourth-place finish at the Virginia short track.  In this event one year ago, Busch slugged it out with a number of stars to claim his third-career runner-up finish at the track.  He's led over 900 laps in just his last six starts at this oval, and he hasn't finished outside the Top 5 in his last seven starts.  Busch is riding a two-race win streak as we come to Virginia this Sunday afternoon, and all signs seem to point to another dominant performance and win.   

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 five seasons of racing at Martinsville has yielded well over 800 laps led, an amazing four pole positions, one victory and five Top-5 finishes.Logano finally put it all together here last October and claimed his first win at the half-mile short track.  From the looks of it, that won't be his last.The driver of the No. 22 Ford has finally discovered the secret to victory at Martinsville Speedway, and he stands best equipped to challenge Kyle Busch this weekend.  With an average finish of 8.8 across his last four Martinsville Speedway starts, we're confident he'll race with the leaders and finish inside the Top 5 in Sunday's 500-lap battle. 

Brad Keselowski Keselowski has seen dramatic improvement in his Martinsville resume in recent seasons.  The Penske Racing star has tons of success at the other short tracks of the Monster Energy Cup Series, but success has been slow to come at Martinsville Speedway.  That all started to change in the 2015 season.  Keselowski nabbed a runner-up finish at this half-mile oval in this event four years ago, and in the seven races since he's claimed a victory, another runner-up finish and five Top 5's.  It would seem that crew chief Paul Wolfe and this veteran driver have finally dialed-in this short track and they are now set to contend for the win each time the series visits Martinsville Speedway.

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 73-percent Top-10 rate here.  With over 1,500-career laps led and 13 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 10 in three of his last five Martinsville starts.  The veteran driver is off to a great start this season, and he led 7 laps and finished fifth at Phoenix two weeks ago.  Hamlin should be hungry for a run at the checkers and a sixth grandfather clock trophy this weekend.

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

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 his last three races at the paperclip.  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 STP 500. 

Martin Truex Jr. Truex has started the season pretty strong.With two Top 5's and four Top 10's in the first five events, the driver of the No. 19 Toyota comes to Martinsville seventh in the championship driver points.  The paperclip has not been a venue of much success for Truex over his career.  However, his move to Furniture Row Racing a few seasons ago improved his performance at this particular oval.  With him shifting to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019, he should carry that momentum forward.Truex has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five starts at Martinsville Speedway, including two pole positions, 211 laps led and a pair of Top-3 finishes across that span.  If the No. 19 Toyota team can qualify well, there's good reason to believe that Truex can race with the lead pack and possibly challenge for the win this Sunday afternoon. 

Chase ElliottElliott only has seven-career starts at this half-mile oval, and while he's not been overly impressive to this point, we have seen incremental improvement with each start. In this event one year ago the Hendrick Motorsports youngster came from 21st on the starting grid to finish ninth after 500 laps.  Elliott visited the foothills of Virginia again in October of last year, and was in the running to win before finishing seventh in the First Data 500.  That gives the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet three Top-10 finishes in his last four starts at the Martinsville short track.Elliott's Camaro was incredibly fast at the Phoenix short track a couple weeks ago, and it's hard to forget that blazing speed.  If he can eliminate the mistakes, he should visit the Top 10 again at Martinsville Speedway. 

Clint Bowyer Bowyer has been wildly inconsistent early this season, but that should make him very eager to visit one of his better short tracks in the series this weekend.  His Martinsville stats are pretty spotless despite some inconsistency a couple seasons ago.  15 of his 26-career starts at Martinsville Speedway have netted Top-10 finishes.  That works out to a very dependable 58-percent rate.  Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz engineered a victory in this event one year ago.  The veteran driver led 215 laps that March afternoon and held off a hard-charging Kyle Busch to win.  Given the current state of things in the No. 14 Ford team it's not very likely that he'll defend his race crown on Sunday.  However, Bowyer has the skill at this oval to register a steady Top-10 finish in the STP 500.

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

Ryan Blaney If you feel like gambling a bit, Blaney could be the biggest risk that pays the biggest rewards this week at Martinsville Speedway.  He's made six-career starts at this oval, and has only two Top-10 finishes.  Those get fixated on the historical numbers could be turned off on the No. 12 team this week for this very reason.  However, it's worth noting that those pair of Top 10's have come in his last three starts at the half-mile Paper Clip.  In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 12 Ford led a surprising 145 laps and finished third in that installment of the STP 500.  It was by far his career-best performance at the Virginia speedway. Blaney's teammates, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, have been top Martinsville performers in recent seasons, and we believe that Penske Racing edge plays a big role in all three drivers' success here.

Aric Almirola Almirola comes a bit back to the pack this week.  After a torrid start to the season, the No. 10 SHR team rides sixth in the points by the power of four Top 10's in the first five races of the season.Martinsville Speedway has not been an easy oval for the 11-season veteran driver.  Just three of his 20 starts have netted Top-10 finishes for a career 21.4 average finish.  However, more recent starts have been better.  Three of Almirola's last five Martinsville starts have netted Top-15 finishes.  The average across that span is a much better 15.2.Rather than seeing his current four-race Top-10 streak extend this weekend at Martinsville, we're more likely to see a finish just outside the Top 10 Sunday afternoon.  That's still worthy of fantasy racing consideration in most format games.

Kurt BuschWith his good performance at Auto Club Speedway, Busch saw his stock rise a little more coming to Martinsville Speedway this week.With two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the last four events, the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has climbed to ninth-place in the series point standings.  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 also been a short track of struggles for the veteran driver.  Busch has only six Top-10 finishes in 37-career starts (16-percent) at the Martinsville oval.We believe he's starting to put his inconsistency issues at this oval behind him.  It started last season with Stewart Haas Racing.  Busch collected 11th- and sixth-place finishes in his two Martinsville starts, and that's incredibly better than his prior four seasons at this oval.  The hot veteran driver is trending in the right direction at this short track.

Jimmie Johnson The No. 48 team has stumbled out of the blocks a bit this season, but nothing can turn around Johnson's campaign like a visit to his "comfort oval" Martinsville Speedway.  The new aerodynamic package and some of the other puzzles that currently boggle this team will be non-factors at this short track.With nine-career wins at the Martinsville oval, Johnson is positioned to be one of the most reliable drivers in this weekend's STP 500.  He peddled to a hard-fought Top-10 finish two weeks ago at the small Phoenix oval, so there's hope for another good performance this weekend.  Johnson is no longer the major threat to win at Martinsville, but he has cracked the Top 15 in each of his last four starts at the facility.  The NASCAR legend has fallen from top dog status at this oval, to simply a steady fantasy racing play.   

Ryan Newman2019 hasn't been a letdown nor has it been an explosion so far for the No. 6 Ford team.  Newman comes to Virginia 17th in the driver standings after three Top 15's to start the season.  He recently registered a respectable 12th-place finish at Phoenix, so we're encouraged for his chances at Martinsville this week.  The small oval has held lots of success for the driver of the No. 6 Ford over the years.  Newman owns three pole positions, one win and 16 Top-10 finishes in 34 starts at this facility.  That works out to a respectable 14.7 average finish and 47-percent Top-10 rate.  The veteran driver nabbed an eighth-place finish in his last start here last October with former boss Richard Childress, and there's ample reason to believe he can do it again.   

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The No. 17 Ford team have been very consistent to start the 2019 season.  Through the first five races, Stenhouse owns one Top 10 and four Top 15's.  That has elevated him to 11th in the driver points, and looking better at this point in the season than usual.  The Roush Fenway Racing driver will look to continue that good trend in Sunday's STP 500.  Although Martinsville Speedway has presented some struggles over the years, Stenhouse has looked good in more recent outings.  The veteran driver has a pair of Top-10 and three Top-20 finishes in his last four starts.  He qualified much better than his average in those last four starts, and that has been a big reason for the success.  Stenhouse looked very good at Phoenix a couple weeks ago, and that should be a good indicator heading into Sunday's race.

Slow Down – Drivers to Avoid This Week

Erik Jones Jones' struggles the last three weeks are really puzzling considering how well the other drivers of Joe Gibbs Racing are faring of late.  Finishes of 13th-, 29th- and 19th-place at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana have dropped the No. 20 team to 13th in the driver point standings.  Jones will have a tough time hitting the reset button this week at Martinsville Speedway.  This tough little short track has been a real puzzle for Jones in his first two seasons of competition at NASCAR's top level.  He has one Top-15 finish offset by two finishes outside the Top 25.  The average across the four-race span comes in at a hefty 20.2.  We normally expect Jones to be much better on short tracks, like his career average finish of 12.5 at Bristol or 14.3 like Phoenix.  It's pretty clear that the driver of the No. 20 Toyota is a high-risk fantasy racing play at the Martinsville short track. 

Kyle Larson After finishing 12th at Fontana this past week, we have to put the slow down tag on Larson and the No. 42 team.They're just not up to speed right now, and they just have never had much luck in terms of racing at this particular short track.  The Chip Ganassi Racing star has 10-career starts at Martinsville Speedway and only one Top-10 finish to his credit.  His career average finish works out to a lowly 24.2 across those 10 Martinsville starts.The four DNF's he's suffered at this oval have taken a big toll on that average.  One of those came in Larson's last start here last October when he suffered an engine failure late in the final stage.  It's best to save this start for Larson and deploy him later in the schedule on an intermediate oval.            

William Byron We expect that Byron has learned a few lessons since his pair of starts at Martinsville last year.  However, it's tough to look past those 20th- and 39th-place finishes for the young driver.  Hopefully, new crew chief Chad Knaus will help ease some of that suffering.  Still, we have to look at the body of work through five races this season and wonder.With only one Top-15 finish to this point, Byron limps into Martinsville a distant 19th in the point standings.  His short track effort at Phoenix two weeks ago was his worst finish to-date of 24th-place.  Considering that the No. 24 Chevrolet team are still trying to find their way, and the Byron-Knaus combo is still seeking some chemistry, this will be a tough outing.We don't expect to see Byron on the good side of the Top 20 at Martinsville Speedway. 

Darrell Wallace Jr. – The Richard Petty Motorsports youngster has stumbled a bit out of the gates this season.  Wallace has no Top-20 finishes through the first five races of 2019, and his average stands at a bloated 28.6.  Things are looking pretty lean for the No. 43 RPM team at the moment.  It doesn't promise to get any easier with this week's visit to the half-mile fender-bender known as Martinsville Speedway.Wallace made his first two Monster Energy Cup Series starts at this oval last year.  He netted a pair of 34th-place finishes in those efforts.  Qualifying was a problem for the young driver, and maintaining the lead lap during the race was the other major shortfall.Wallace's cold start to the season coupled with this tough short track are not a good combination for this weekend.

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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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