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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 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 straight-aways. 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 paramount. 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 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 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 nine years or 18 races at Martinsville Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson3.96479542,2798,333124.0
Jeff Gordon4.76601,0291,7398,167121.1
Denny Hamlin8.15605721,1536,609111.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.16194554176,96398.9
Tony Stewart13.64173768446,11398.5
Kyle Busch16.05784024656,32397.0
Clint Bowyer12.65122513075,80393.8
Kevin Harvick14.85102202165,94792.9
Brad Keselowski10.426547102,43989.2
Jeff Burton16.44642933715,36787.4
Ryan Newman14.54781421365,05887.4
Jamie McMurray16.7386140744,81784.2
Matt Kenseth14.03461483324,50283.5
Carl Edwards15.4511112314,81880.5
Brian Vickers18.937990273,68979.5
Joey Logano15.93333702,31678.4
Kasey Kahne20.5288243133,25878.1
Kurt Busch21.2370135714,06977.0
Mark Truex Jr.22.32929312,93770.4
Greg Biffle19.829553212,70969.8

Martinsville has been a tale of three drivers in its recent history, and in 2013 we saw the continuation of this monopoly. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin have ruled the Virginia short track with total domination. The trio has won 12 of the 15 prior events at the facility leading up to this weekend. That includes Johnson's victory in this event one year ago and Gordon's victory in the last Cup race at the Virginia short track in last October's Goody's Relief Shot 500. The chances for the "Martinsville Trio" to reassert themselves again in this weekend's STP 500 would seem very likely. All three are looking for their first victory of the season, so we know all of them will be hungry coming into this 500-lap battle. We need to be aware that these three talented drivers are always a threat when we come to Southern Virginia. One name that we need to add to the contenders list is Matt Kenseth. He led well over 300 laps at this short track in last season's two events and even finished runner-up in the October race. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has never won at the paper clip but the time may finally be right to re-write the record books. The move to Joe Gibbs Racing last year seemed to up Kenseth's game on all the series' short tracks, including Martinsville Speedway. 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 upset at Fontana 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 the driver to beat in this weekend's STP 500. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet won this event one year ago in dominant fashion. Johnson led over 450 laps in both Martinsville races combined last season, so his dominance at this oval is clearly established and recent. With Denny Hamlin's health status potentially in question this week, he is the top choice for your fantasy lineups on Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon -
We're banking that Gordon can continue his current hot streak this week with a visit to this small Virginia oval. Martinsville Speedway ranks number one on the circuit for the Hendrick Motorsports star with eight career wins and a staggering 27 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 2006 season (81 percent), you just don't see that kind of dominance in the modern era of NASCAR. Gordon led 78 laps and won the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited the flat oval of Martinsville, in October of last year. That victory should be fresh on his mind entering this weekend.

Matt Kenseth -
The move to Joe Gibbs Racing last season has really enhanced his performance and fantasy value at the flat short track of Martinsville Speedway. Kenseth has a pair of Top 5s in his last four visits to Martinsville Speedway. However, it was his two performances here last season that set career marks for laps led, with 202 in October's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. That led to a runner-up finish to Jeff Gordon. Kenseth also led 96 laps in this event one year ago. After 28 starts at the Virginia oval, the time may have finally arrived for the JGR star to pull into victory lane and collect his first grandfather clock trophy.

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 80 laps led, and two Top-5 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 the Top 10 with 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 of Bristol. However, signs are pointing to the driver of the No. 2 Ford catching up fast. Last year Keselowski picked up sixth- and fourth-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 an outside run at the race trophy.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star turned in his career-best Martinsville finish in this event one year ago. Bowyer didn't lead any laps but he collected a brilliant runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson. His last four trips to the Virginia short track have netted three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes. Bowyer has also led laps in three of those last four races at the small, flat oval. Last year's efforts at Martinsville Speedway have brought Bowyer's career Top-10 rate at this facility up to a strong 63-percent. That's more than enough to warrant serious fantasy racing consideration for Sunday's STP 500.

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 well, so we have high expectations for the No. 88 Chevrolet team this weekend. Earnhardt has Top-10 finishes in five of his last seven starts at this Virginia bull ring. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited this half-mile oval, the NASCAR icon qualified 12th and finished a respectable eighth in the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. Coming off the subpar 12th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, we know Earnhardt has to be motivated heading to Martinsville Speedway this Sunday.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is usually one of the drivers to beat each time we visit Martinsville Speedway, but the Joe Gibbs Racing star's health status is in question as the series returns to action at one of his favorite venues. He was scratched at the last minute last week at Auto Club Speedway with what was believed to be a sinus infection that was affecting his vision. Keep a close watch on Hamlin's medical status as the weekend approaches. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is a four-time winner at the Martinsville oval and he sports a stellar 81-percent Top-10 rate here. If Hamlin can go this Sunday afternoon, even at less than 100-percent health, he's a Top-10 threat due to his expertise at this oval.

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

Tony Stewart -
The three-time Martinsville winner comes to the historic short track this week riding high after Top-5 finishes at Bristol and Fontana. The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is recovering quickly from his long layoff and leg injury. That notion will be put soundly to the test this Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Smoke has won here as recently as 2011and he has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to the half-mile oval. With 15 career Top-10 finishes, Stewart checks in at a respectable 52-percent Top-10 rate. With over 1,200 career laps led at this facility, he's no stranger to racing up front here either.

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 are off to a good start this season, so he should have no trouble rediscovering his Martinsville groove.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing No. 16 team has started this season in rather unflattering fashion. Biffle has struggled without a doubt. He has one Top 10 in the first five races and currently sits 20th in the championship standings. In recent seasons Biffle has made gains at the Virginia short track. The veteran driver owns a three-race Top-10 streak at the paper clip coming into Sunday's STP 500. We believe he'll use that recent experience to get his team back in order for this important short track race.

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 in the Top 10 in three of the last six races at the paper clip. Harvick has led over 350 career laps at the Southern Virginia short track, so he has no shortage of experience here. Given his three-week bad luck streak entering this weekend, we had to downgrade the No. 4 Chevrolet team to the sleepers list this week because Harvick is carrying a bit of risk with him entering the STP 500.

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 12 Top-10 finishes in 22 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-10 finishes at the historic oval. McMurray should be steady and strong in this Sunday's 500-lap brawl. Considering that the veteran driver is coming off an impressive sixth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, he should have momentum on his side.

Brian Vickers -
The Michael Waltrip Racing short track specialist comes to one of his better venues this weekend. Vickers is a top fantasy racing 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 third-place qualifying effort and solid 11th-place finish in last April's STP Gas Booster 500. Vickers' brilliant Top 10 performances at Bristol and Fontana the last two weeks for the strong No. 55 Toyota team give us good reason to remain optimistic. He has the short track skill and momentum on his side entering Martinsville weekend.

Kyle Larson -
Probably the biggest early-season surprise of 2014 has been rookie Larson and his streaking No. 42 CGR team. The young driver claimed his first Sprint Cup Top 10 at Bristol's short track two weeks ago and then he followed it up with a brilliant runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway last week. Larson strides tall into Martinsville Speedway, sitting 16th in the overall driver standings and looking to impress once more. He has only one Cup start at the half-mile oval and it was a DNF due to engine failure last October. However, that shouldn't deter expectations for this hot rookie in Sunday's STP 500.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Paul Menard -
The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet is battling a tough history at Martinsville Speedway entering this weekend. Menard has 13 career starts at this half-mile short track and has no Top-10 finishes. In fact, he's never led a single lap at this facility and owns an average finish of 21.8. These numbers weigh heavily on any expectations for the veteran driver. Considering that Menard's last finish here was a 22nd-place effort, that's a mark pretty close to what we should expect for Sunday's STP 500. Save this start for Menard and deploy him at a larger speedway to better effect.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Stenhouse comes to Southern Virginia looking to rebound from his disappointing 34th-place finish at Fontana. It's been an up-and-down season so far for the young Roush Fenway Racing driver. The half-mile flat track isn't the best place to go looking for a rally if you're Stenhouse. In his two prior starts at the track he has 25th- and 31st-place finishes to his credit. His qualifying efforts have been mediocre at best and he's failed to stay on the lead lap in those races. Stenhouse has the potential to surprise in this one, but it's best to err to the conservative side this week and keep the No. 17 Ford team benched.

Kurt Busch -
With a Top-10 finish at Auto Club Speedway last weekend, Busch ended his terrible slide to start the season. The bad news is that we're coming to about his toughest track in the series to follow up that Top 10. Busch hasn't cracked the Top 10 at this facility since the 2005 season. Those four total Top-10 finishes in 27 starts come in at a lowly 15-percent rate. Only Las Vegas Motor Speedway ranks lower in the veteran driver's resume in every performance measure. Two of his last four visits to Martinsville Speedway have resulted in finishes outside the Top 30, with one DNF. The statistics are simply too poor to ignore and take the risk.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Five races into the season and there is reason to be concerned in the No. 78 Chevrolet camp. Truex has no Top-10 finishes and he sits 30th in the series standings after his subpar finish at Auto Club Speedway. Martinsville's flat oval has been a real challenge to the veteran driver over his career. Truex has only four Top 10s in 16 career visits to the Southern Virginia oval. The last of those came in this event in 2012, however, since then he has three straight finishes outside the Top 15. With the Furniture Row Racing team and Truex still trying to find common ground and some chemistry, this is not the weekend to roll this struggling driver.