STP 500 Preview
March 28, 2017
By Micah Roberts
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Kyle Larson has only one win this season and two career Cup wins while in his fourth season, but I'm getting the feeling it he's going to have double-digit wins and possibly end up with a championship. He's got a 1998 Jeff Gordon look about him so far.
Larson kept his incredible start to 2017 going Sunday at Fontana with a win following three consecutive second-place finishes and he's got Las Vegas taking notice. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook as the 6/1 co-favorite (Bet $100 to win $600) with four other drivers to win NASCAR's Cup Series Championship. He's right there on the same plateau as Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson, who won his seventh title last season, is listed at 8/1 odds. That is some serious respect given to Larson, and well deserved.
Double-digit wins by Larson may be a bit of an exaggeration by me, but it's clear at this early juncture that Larson and Martin Truex Jr. have the new low downforce package figured out the best on the tracks where it makes the biggest impact.
Three of the five races so far have been tracks where the package means everything and there are still nine more races on 1.5-mile tracks and two more at Michigan's 2-mile layout. Joe Gibbs Racing has been a little sluggish so far on these tracks after dominating on them the past two seasons. The new Toyota Camry body design may have something to do with JGR's slow start, but Truex is using the same equipment and same body design and doesn't seem to have the same problems as his four defacto teammates.
This weekend at Martinsville, we can clean the slate on data accumulated between races at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana. The low downforce package will have little effect on the outcome on the flat half-mile layout. This track usually has the same group of guys winning on it twice a year. When looking back the past 14 years of Martinsville results, four drivers combined to win 22 of the 28 races.
Two of those four drivers have retired in the past two seasons. Jeff Gordon had nine wins all-time there while Tony Stewart had three, which leaves Jimmie Johnson (nine wins) and Denny Hamlin (five wins) as the lone Martinsville dominators in what is obviously the dawning of a new era in NASCAR. The door is left open for some new blood to jump into the Martinsville mix.
Just who might those drivers be? Kyle Larson finished third in this race last season and you have to consider him just because of current form, but the style of tough hard-nosed racing doesn't fit his profile like the bigger faster tracks do. Last years third-place was his only top-10 finish in six starts which he's averaged a 22nd-place average.
We can't really call 2015 Cup Champion Kyle Busch "new blood", but he's only been able to capture one win in 23 starts because of Hamlin, Gordon and Johnson hogging all the grandfather clock trophies. He won this race last season and it was sandwiched around two fifth-place finishes. His upbringing in car racing in Las Vegas at the Bull Ring saw him dominate like the LVMS short track has never seen. This should typically be his best type of track.
It took Dale Earnhardt Jr. 30 starts to finally win his first race at Martinsville in the fall of 2014, but he's always ran well there with a 12.9 average finish in 33 starts. He's yet to have top-10 this season but he's a great bet to do so this week.
Brad Keselowski has four top-fives in 14 starts, but no wins with a 13.7 average finish. He's got the mentality and temperament to be good here, but it hasn't happened yet. His teammate Joey Logano had a Martinsville win in hand in the fall of 2015, but a late payback hit while leading by a vengeful Matt Kenseth halted it from happening. Still, Logano has averaged a 14.3 finish in 16 starts with a best of second-place in 2010.
A good long shot to take notice of this week is Clint Bowyer because he's finally got a Stewart Haas car that can compete and show his true skills as a driver after being in a jalopy the past few years. Flat tracks have always been his best types. In 22 Martinsville starts he's averaged a 14.8 finish, but that average is muddied from his past three races driving junk that saw him finish 25th or worse. From 2012 to 2014, he had a run of six straight top-10 finishes including runner-up in 2013. Last week he finished third in Fontana. It's aweseom seeing Bowyer matter again in the series.
Kevin Harvick grabbed his only Martinsville win in 2011 and his fourth-place finish later that season was his last top-5. Ten races have passed since then, but the type of racing this track produces is right up his alley.
I'm sticking with the meat and potatoes here with Hamlin and Johnson until I see someone else step up and those names will be identified during Friday and Saturday's practices. Johnson won the fall race last season and is probably really looking forward to coming here after a sluggish start.
Hamlin hails from Virginia and its the two races he circles on his calendar each year. He comes in knowing he's going to win each time out and is the best and entering and exiting the tights turns at maximum speed. He last won in 2015 and finished third in the fall last season.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (10/1)
5) #14 Clint Bowyer (25/1)