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STP 500 Preview: Short-Track Survival

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to the East coast this week as the series pulls into the small town of Martinsville, Va., for the STP Gas Booster 500. Martinsville marks the return to short tracks after the just completed race at the two-mile oval in Fontana, Calif. Martinsville Speedway is very flat track with only 12 degrees of banking in the turns and is truly flat on the long straightaways. 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 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 Sprint Cup Series, not only is equipment preservation important but qualifying and track position is paramount. If you start in the back of the field here, you can find yourself down a lap 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 track position on pit road. All these factors add up into a survival of the fittest and smartest battle.

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 statistics at Martinsville will be one of the biggest factors 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 eight years or 16 races at Martinsville Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson4.15838021,8107,349122.3
Jeff Gordon5.15499251,6617,243120.9
Denny Hamlin8.25125571,1396,160111.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.11.65244454176,17999.8
Tony Stewart13.43833758445,85699.7
Kyle Busch16.84833503975,34595.3
Kevin Harvick15.53971942165,02392.3
Clint Bowyer14.04211712474,88990.8
Ryan Newman12.04301331364,68889.5
Jeff Burton16.73962843664,65987.5
Mark Martin15.0225120272,78087.0
Brad Keselowski12.216535101,58084.5
Jamie McMurray17.7296111744,07582.8
Juan Pablo Montoya15.7367154462,76581.7
Carl Edwards15.6461111314,42880.9
Matt Kenseth14.828452343,55278.4
Brian Vickers19.534675273,30378.3
Kurt Busch20.4313131713,70778.2
Joey Logano15.32483601,60977.1
Kasey Kahne21.1231191132,67276.0

Martinsville had been a tale of two drivers for the last several seasons, but in 2012 we saw a curve ball thrown at the monopoly. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin ruled the Virginia short track with total domination. The duo had won nine of the 11 prior events at the facility leading up to last season. That all changed when Ryan Newman took the checkered flag for this event one year ago. Although Johnson and Hamlin both had their stints at the front during that race, it was Newman who took advantage of a late caution and restart to claim the victory. Then, right on cue, Johnson would redeem himself in the fall installment at Martinsville during his battle with Brad Keselowski in the Chase for the Cup that saw him fall just short of the Sprint Cup Series championship. The chances for the "Martinsville Duo" to reassert themselves again in this weekend's STP Gas Booster 500 would seem very likely. Johnson already has one victory in 2013 and Hamlin's No. 11 team always comes to life when we visit Martinsville Speedway. We need to be aware that these two talented drivers are always a threat when we come to Southern Virginia. One name that we need to add to the contenders list is Jeff Gordon. He dominated a large part of this race one year ago before that final accident ended his chances for a win. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has seven career wins at the paper clip and he narrowly missed an eighth in this race last year. One thing is almost certain this weekend… We're more likely to see a Chevrolet or Toyota in victory lane this Sunday afternoon than a Ford, by a wide margin. A Ford driver hasn't won at this small oval since Kurt Busch pulled the feat for owner Jack Roush in 2002. That's something to remember for those playing in weekly lineup leagues. 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 shocking performance at Fontana it will be good for the five-time champion to get back to action on a short track this week. With seven career wins at the Martinsville oval, Johnson is positioned to be the driver to beat in this weekend's STP Gas Booster 500. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet won the last event raced here in last October's Tums Fast Relief 500. Johnson led over 300 laps in both Martinsville races combined last season, so his dominance is fresh enough to translate into the new Gen-6 car. With Denny Hamlin sidelined this week, he makes an excellent choice for your fantasy lineups on Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon -
We're banking that Gordon can shake his current slump this week with a visit to this small Virginia oval. Martinsville Speedway ranks number one on the circuit for the Hendrick Motorsports star with seven career wins and a staggering 25 Top-5 finishes. If there's such a thing as a security blanket in Gordon's track portfolio, this is it. With 13 Top-5 finishes in 16 starts for the No. 24 Chevrolet team dating back to the 2005 season (81 percent), you just don't see that kind of dominance in the modern era of NASCAR parity. Gordon led a whopping 329 laps in this race one year ago when a wild, late restart ended in a wreck and robbed Gordon of the victory within site of the finish.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt has not only maintained a solid resume at the paper clip over the years, he's actually taken steps closer to visiting victory lane here. He has started this season on a roll, so we have high expectations for the No. 88 Chevrolet team this weekend. Earnhardt has second- and third-place finishes in his last four starts at this Virginia bull ring. He led 3 laps and finished third in this event one year ago, so the NASCAR icon was second only to the dynamic duo of Johnson and Gordon that day. Coming off the runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway, we know he has to be smiling heading to Martinsville Speedway this Sunday.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs 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 improvement. His last two years of racing at Martinsville have yielded close to 280 laps led, and two Top-3 finishes. Something has been missing from the list of ingredients thus far to get the No. 18 Toyota into victory lane at this facility. All the puzzle pieces may fall into place this weekend. Busch is coming off the big win at Fontana and carrying a lot of momentum in the foothills of Southern Virginia this week. If there is a surprise winner in the offing this Sunday afternoon, it will likely be Joe Gibbs Racing star Busch.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski is just beginning to build his Martinsville resume. 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. However, signs are pointing to the driver of the No. 2 Ford catching up fast. Last year Keselowski picked up ninth- and sixth-place finishes at the paper clip, and both efforts were career-bests at this facility. We would be greatly disappointed if Keselowski didn't build on those efforts in Sunday's 500-lap event at Martinsville Speedway. Another Top 10 performance should be in the offing with the possibility of a run at the race trophy.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star turned in his career-best Martinsville performance in last October's Tums Fast Relief 500. Bowyer led 154 laps and finished a career-best fifth that day last fall. He should have no trouble duplicating that effort in this weekend's STOP Gas Booster 500. Three of his last four trips to the Virginia short track have netted Top-10 finishes. Bowyer has also led laps in three of those last four races at the small, flat oval. Last year's efforts have brought Bowyer's career Top 10 rate at this facility up to a respectable 57 percent. That's more than enough to warrant serious fantasy racing consideration.

Ryan Newman -
The Stewart-Haas No. 39 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 50 percent Top 10 rate at Martinsville Speedway. He was the surprise winner of this event one year ago, so there's no ruling out an outside shot at victory lane. Newman has led close to 90 laps in his last five trips to the paperclip-shaped oval, and his last start at the speedway netted a respectable 11th-place finish last October. Rocket Man and his Stewart Haas Racing team have this track dialed-in so the new Gen-6 car shouldn't be a concern this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
Hendrick Motorsports dominance is always on our mind when we visit Martinsville, and that even extends to the No. 5 team even though this isn't one of Kahne's better tracks. With only three Top 10s in 18 starts you probably think we're crazy calling for the Kahne Top 10 this week. Well, in this case it's all about your equipment. Kahne had a dynamite car in this race one year ago. He won the pole and looked good early until an engine failure ended his day. Kahne returned to Martinsville in the fall and led 12 laps en route to the richly-deserved third-place finish in the Tums Fast Relief 500. We're willing to bet that Kahne is the one we see this weekend and not the one of past history at Martinsville Speedway.

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

Mark Martin -
The opportunity for Martin to have significant impact on this weekend's Martinsville race has presented itself. It comes in the form of being a relief driver in Joe Gibbs' No. 11 Toyota. Martin will replace the injured Denny Hamlin this Sunday in the STP Gas Booster 500 and as a result take the wheel of one of the strongest short track teams in the series. In addition, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver boasts 48 career starts at the Virginia short track with two victories and 25 Top-10 finishes. The combination of this much experience and this excellent team should yield big results at the paper clip this Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth -
We may be rating Kenseth a tad bit low this week in the sleepers list. The new Joe Gibbs Racing driver was just beginning to build an impressive resume at Martinsville shortly before departing Roush Fenway Racing. The move to JGR can only enhance his performance and fantasy value at the flat short track. Kenseth has a pair of Top 10s in his last four visits to Martinsville Speedway. One of those was an impressive fourth-place finish in this event one year ago. Considering that the No. 20 Toyota team is off and rolling well to start the season, Kenseth should have no trouble duplicating his recent efforts at this short track this weekend.

Kevin Harvick -
If any of the top tier drivers stumble this Sunday, it could be the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team that seizes on the opportunity and steals this race. 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 in the Top 4 in three of the last five races at the paper clip. Harvick has led over 350 career laps at the Southern Virginia short track, so the No. 29 Chevrolet team has a ton of experience on their side entering this event.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately at Martinsville Speedway. Three of his four career Top 10s have come in the last three seasons at the Virginia short track. Our last short track event saw the No. 56 Toyota team finish a respectable 12th at Bristol a couple weeks ago. Truex doesn't have great career numbers at Martinsville Speedway, but he's been figuring the bull ring out of late. The No. 56 Toyota team hasn't started the season on fire, but they seem to be slowly building some momentum. Truex should be good to continue building this team's level of performance in Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray has been making great gains to start the new season and has been shaking off the stigma of a couple of bad seasons at EGR. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has always liked racing the flat oval in Virginia. McMurray owns 10 Top-10 finishes in 20 career starts at Martinsville Speedway. That includes one pole position and 117 career laps led at Martinsville. Last year he earned a pair of Top-20 finishes at the historic oval. McMurray should be steady and strong in this Sunday's 500-lap brawl. Another safe Top-20 should be in the offing, with the upside of a potential Top 10.

Brian Vickers -
The Michael Waltrip Racing short track specialist is no longer a secret. He's a top play in deeper leagues when the series visits short tracks. The last time we saw the journeyman driver in action at Martinsville he was hitting on all cylinders with his outside pole qualifying effort and impressive eighth-place finish in last October's Tums Fast Relief 500. Vickers' brilliant Top 10 performance at Bristol three weeks ago for the strong No. 55 Toyota team gives us good reason to remain optimistic. He has parlayed this part-time job into racing results on the track. It will surely continue at Martinsville Speedway.

Regan Smith -
Smith steps back into the driver's seat of Phoenix Racing's No. 51 Chevrolet for the first time since his season-opening Top-10 performance in the Daytona 500. You could say that the now part-time Cup driver will be eager to climb back behind the wheel of this team's car. Things have been going well in the No. 51 camp under the guidance of the team's other driver, A.J. Allmendinger. The duo has combined for three Top 15s in their four starts and no finishes worse than 16th. That trend should continue this weekend despite Smith's spotty record at the paper clip. Smith's last two Martinsville starts have netted respectable 13th- and 16th-place finishes. You could do far worse in Yahoo! Fantasy Racing's "C" group.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is usually one of the drivers to beat each time we visit Martinsville Speedway, but the Joe Gibbs Racing star is laid up with a nasty back injury as the series returns to action. The fractured L1 vertebrae will keep this short track ace sidelined for the next several weeks. In fantasy racing terms, keep Hamlin benched for the time being but look instead to his replacements (Brian Vickers and Mark Martin) in the upcoming events for weekly lineup leagues since the JGR No. 11 team is an upper tier camp and it will boost their value tremendously to pilot Hamlin's Toyota.

Joey Logano -
Despite Logano's flirtation with victory lane this past week at Auto Club Speedway, we have to downgrade the Penske Racing driver this week at Martinsville's oval. With two Top-10 finishes in eight career starts at the paper clip, that's a whole lot of mediocre to risk a fantasy racing start. Logano finished 23rd- and 16th- in his last two starts for Joe Gibbs Racing at this oval last season. The talented youngster has the ability to prove us wrong this week in the STP Gas Booster 500, but we'll play it safe and ride the odds. Considering the fireworks that Logano has endured the last couple races, his head may not entirely be in the racing this weekend and that's a bad recipe for a rhythm track like Martinsville.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has had a tough time in his brief Sprint Cup career at this short track. Ambrose's oval-track performances have improved the last couple years, but Martinsville has been an exception. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has eight career starts at the Virginia short track and no Top-10 finishes to his credit. In fact, his last three trips to the facility have netted finishes of 39th-, 15th- and 24th-place. These performances all factor into a lowly 22.0 career average finish at Martinsville. Ambrose is definitely a driver to pass on in the STP Gas Booster 500.

Tony Stewart -
The three-time Martinsville winner has better tracks in his resume and his temper got the best of him in his last start at Fontana. The No. 14 team is the big swing play at this short track. Stewart is either racing in the Top 5 and challenging for the win or he's limping around with substantial damage to his car and 50 laps down. We'll err to the conservative side this week and let other fantasy racing players take the Stewart lottery ticket. His last start at Martinsville netted a disappointing 27th-place finish last October, and that's just one in a series of ups-and-downs for him at this track.