STP 500 Preview
March 21, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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"Hurry-up Martinsville" is what I've been saying the past few weeks and it's finally arrived. Being a west coast guy, I love when NASCAR roars into my region, but as for the racing itself, I've been a little disappointed.
It's obvious we have an imbalance in the series on the down-force tracks and it's produced some runaway races. But it's hard to runaway at Martinsville's flat, half-mile paperclip layout. It's a level playing field with the car and driver being an equal component to success.
Besides close races, what also stands out at Martinsville is the slow speeds (pole 96 mph last fall) that make it easier for drivers to administer NASCAR justice. Drivers don't want to wreck others mostly for fear of injury and at 200 mph, injuries can happen easily bigger tracks. But a punt here or there at Martinsville to send a message is a regular occurrence.
“This type of racing is what put this sport on the map, and it’s been a while since we’ve been that, and it’s a breath of fresh air to get back to a short track where it can breed some of that and put on a show for the fans,” said Clint Bowyer who finished seventh and third last season at Martinsville.
Part of the show we all love is the fireworks after the race when the drivers get out of their car to hunt down whoever did them wrong. Is it wrong to root for fights? I don't care. I love it. I want more of it and I haven't had any of it this season. I need some action, man. Entertain me, please.
“I know I was entertained by the racing last year and I expect we’ll see the same thing again this weekend,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer is going to be one of those drivers that goes from being a driver with odds to win usually in the 25/1 range down to 12/1, which is the same odds his Stewart Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has posted at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
Harvick has been dominating the down force tracks winning three straight races following Daytona and probably would have won Sunday if he didn't wreck himself so early at Fontana. In 35 Martinsville starts, he has just one win (2011) and a 15.8 average finish.
The driver chasing Harvick the most the past four weeks has been Kyle Busch. Twice runner-up to Harvick and third last week. He wants a win bad and he's at the right place to get it winning two of the past four races there which is why he's the 7/2 favorite.
“We’ve run well the last two years especially at Martinsville and we’re definitely pumped about getting back there," said Kyle Busch. "I’m hoping we can have a really good car there again this time around, like we did the last two years, especially. We led a lot of laps and we were really fast. Hoping that some of those things we were able to push through there last fall at Martinsville we’ll be able to do this time around with our M&M’s Caramel Camry.”
Busch is on a run of five straight top-five finishes at Martinsville. A lot of his success there can be attributed to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, a native Virginian, who has five Cup wins and two Truck wins at Martinsville. Hamlin knows how his car should be set-up and how to enter and exit the turns best and he's shared the knowledge.
Hamlin is off to one of the best starts of his career finishing sixth or better in four of his five starts.
“We’ve had a strong start to the season, we’re just still searching for that little bit of speed we need to really contend for a win," said Hamlin who last won at Martinsville in 2015. "Obviously, Martinsville is a place where I know I can be successful, so I’m looking forward to getting back there.”
He's always in the mix at Martinsville leading a lap in 17 of his past 19 starts there. He loves the home cooking and has 12 top-fives in 24 career starts and has led 1,394 laps. He's 6/1 to win this week, and I'm on it already. Expect him and Busch to practice extremely well on Saturday so odds will drop. Also note: there's no Cup activity on Friday. There will be two practices Saturday and then qualifying.
Nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson finished ninth last week for his first top-10 of the season. Despite his team looking sluggish this season, Martinsville is a place he can steal a win.
“We are chipping away and still working hard," said Johnson. "The small victories we had last weekend are good signs we are moving in the right direction – we know there is still a lot of work to do. Last week’s solid performance moved us up in points a bit as well. I always look forward to racing at Martinsville, it suits our team’s style and it’s one of our favorite tracks – you feel like you have stepped back in time when you walk in there.”
Johnson's 10/1 odds this week are his highest at Martinsville since 2004 when he won his first race there. Nine wins in 32 starts for a 7,6 average finish. He basically wins at Martinsville every 3.5 starts and his last win there was three races ago in 2016.
Brad Keselowski has had a recent run at Martinsville almost as amazing as Busch's. He won this race last season and then was fourth in the fall. The year before he was runner-up and fifth. He was also runner-up in the spring 2015 race. He's built for this track and Team Penske has his Ford dialed in well, as is teammate Joey Logano's car which has been the pole sitter in four of the past six Martinsville races.
Some of the other guys that are now contenders because of the track include Bowyer, Austin Dillon (100/1), Ryan Newman (60/1), Aric Almirola (60/1) and Kurt Busch (60/1). Dillon has top-five finises in his past two Martinsville spring races while the elder Busch has two wins there. Almirola is just racing good everywhere with finishes of 13th or better in all five races.
A.J. Allmendinger also becomes a player this week and he's 100/1 to win. He was sixth in this race last season and is also a two-time runner-up there. He's got enough skills suited here to make up for a slow car.
The same can be said for rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. in the No. 43. If you're feeling real dangerous and want a lottery ticket to root in, Wallace is offered at 500-to-1. His first NASCAR win came at Martinsville in the Truck Series and two of his six NASCAR wins all-time have come at Martinsville. He likes the track very much.
Now drop that green flag and let the excitement begin.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (6/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
3) #2 Brad Keselowski (5/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (6/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (10/1)