STP 500 Preview
March 29, 2016
By Micah Roberts
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If you've been betting NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Martinsville Speedway over the past 13 years, you've seen a pattern developing where only a few drivers have won, which is in stark contrast to what was witnessed just a few years earlier when a couple of high priced bombs cashed in.
In 25 of the past 26 races on the flat half-mile layout, one of the short favorites has won. The only payout higher than 12/1 odds was Ryan Newman at 30/1 in 2012. Chevrolet has won nine of the past 10 races there and 20 of the past 26, with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon grabbing the bulk of the wins. The non-Chevy to do well over that span is Denny Hamlin who has won five times in his Joe Gibbs Toyota, including last spring.
Who wants to bet the favorites? That's no fun, but at the same time with so many of them cashing, you'd be kind of stupid to not structuring your wagers accordingly for what is almost a certainty to happen again.
It used to be that racing at Martinsville was an equalizer for drivers where the best equipment didn't always win like happens at most other tracks. It was all about the driver and who could stick the car around the 1,000 turns the best while keeping their brakes fresh.
From a betting standpoint, it opened up all kinds of awesome possibilities. For a brief stretch, we witnessed winning payouts with Bobby Hamilton at 25/1, Ricky Rudd at 30/1, John Andretti at 45/1 and Ricky Craven and 40/1.
But since then, it's been basically three drivers dominating, one of which is eight-time winner Johnson who comes in as the 9/2 favorite to win Sunday's STP 500.
The other dominator is Hamlin, who loves flat tracks, and the other one over the past two decades is nine-time winner Gordon who is retired. With Gordon now out of the mix -- he won the last race there in November, who is going to be the next driver to step up and take control? Will it be Johnson grabbing his ninth Grandfather clock (the Martinsville trophy) and first since 2013, Hamlin winning in his home state again, or someone else?
Hamlin has led 1,315 laps over his 20 career starts. His eighth-place average finish is second-best to Johnson's 7.4 average. Johnson's 2,747 laps led are the most among active drivers. The dude also has 18 top-five finishes in 28 starts. Say what? That is crazy consistent.
Between Johnson and Hamlin, they are head and shoulders above the rest of the field, but last fall we saw a new driver step up and show he has what it takes to get up front and lead some laps. He also learned a hard lesson.
Joey Logano was on his way to his first career Martinsville win in what was the first race of the eliminator round of the Chase. A win would have secured Logano a spot in the Sprint Cup title round at Homestead. He had already won three races in the Chase and looked to be unstoppable up to that point. After 459 of 500 laps, Logano was leading -- he led a race-high nine times for 207 laps on the day, but he had a big target on his back from an incident a few weeks prior at Kansas where Matt Kenseth was still irritated about a punt from Logano that essentially ruined his championship hopes. When Kenseth, down several laps, saw the opportunity to derail Logano, he kamikazied his car right into the leader. It was sensational, controversial and jaw-dropping all at the same time -- straight out of the movie "Days of Thunder."
Logano would finish 37th and he wouldn't be one of the final four at Homestead. Kenseth was suspended for the next two races.
But there was enough evidence from that race that Logano had what it takes to get up there in the upper-echelon of drivers at Martinsville with Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin. This week he's the 6/1 co-second choice with Hamlin.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. went 29 races without winning at Martinsville until winning in the fall of 2014. He's finished fourth or better in three of his past four starts.
Kenseth has never won at Martinsville in 32 career starts, but has finished sixth or better in four of his past five starts.
With Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin hogging all the Martinsville wins, there's only a couple of other current drivers that have actually won there. Kurt Busch has won twice in 31 starts and then Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman each have one. And that's it. No other active driver has claimed a win, which is the most lopsided type of dominating trend we have in the series today.
I'm expecting Logano to be strong once again this week, but I'm going to side with Hamlin again. I'd love to pick a long shot like Ricky Rudd back in 1998, but that era appears to be over.
Look for much of the same to occur again, which leads right back to Hamlin.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
2) #22 Joey Logano (6/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (9/2)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (7/1)
5) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10/1)