STP 500 Preview
March 20, 2019
By Micah Roberts
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Kyle Busch has seven top-five finishes in his last seven starts at Martinsville Speedway, including his first two wins on the flat half-mile layout. He comes off his 200th career win between NASCAR's three national series (998 starts) and he going for three straight Cup wins, something he's done twice already in his career (2015, 2018). He's got some serious momentum going right now which is why the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted him as the 8-to-5 favorite (Bet $100 to win $160) to win Sunday's STP 500.
The Las Vegas native will race in Saturday's Truck Series race, which the SuperBook posted him as the 1-to-2 favorite (-200), and Sunday's race will be his 1,000th NASCAR start between the three series. He's winning races at an incredible 20 percent rate. And so far in the 2019 Cup season, he's won 2-of-5 races for a 40 percent clip.
Another major factor in the low odds on Busch this week is that the Cup Series will be using the same race package used at Phoenix two weeks ago with no aero-ducts and an engine with 750 horsepower that he dominated with leading 177 of 312 laps. Yes, he's got plenty of reasons to be optimistic this week.
“We’ve run well, the last two years especially, at Martinsville and we’re definitely pumped about getting back there," Busch said. "I’m hoping we can have a really good car there again this time around like we did the last several years. We led a lot of laps and we were really fast in our last seven races there. Hoping that some of those things we were able to push through there a few times before and get our M&M’S Chocolate Bar Camry in victory lane there this weekend."
Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin is a native Virginian who knows the track better than most with five wins and always gets to the front leading laps in 20 of his last 23 Martinsville starts. He'll be getting some home cooking this weekend, but he's not getting overly excited. It's all business.
“I treat every race the same and I know our team is always working hard to give the FedEx Toyota the best chance to take the checkered flag," Hamlin said. "I’m proud of my accomplishments at Martinsville, but every race is different and we will need to be fully focused and be at our best if we are going to have a shot at winning this weekend.”
He was runner-up last fall and won the first stage of both races last season. And despite him saying he treats all races the same, I don't buy it. He hasn't won there since 2015 and it bugs him. That's his home turf. He's run great with all four packages that have been used this season and the package used this week he finished fifth with at Phoenix. Because of his Daytona 500 win, he's clinched a Playoff berth and can now be more relaxed. He's talking big picture, but I'm looking for him to more aggressive than usual. Because of Busch's ridiculously low odds, Hamlin is the beneficiary getting sweet 10-to-1 odds.
Jimmie Johnson leads active drivers in just about every category at Martinsville with nine wins, 19 top-fives, and 2,863 laps led between 34 Cup starts.
“In Martinsville, the inside lane is so important, but so is having a strong race car," Johnson said. "Passing is tough and you will see the ‘bump and run’ a lot – sometimes you just have to rough someone up to get by them, but you have to be smart, because as soon as you get by them, they will be right back on your bumper into the corner and could pay back the favor. It’s obviously one of my favorite tracks. I am looking forward to this weekend.”
Johnson hasn't cracked the top-10 in his last four starts there since last winning in 2016, but based on his eighth-place run at Phoenix with the same 750 horsepower package he'll be using this weekend, taking 30/1 odds to win wouldn't be a terrible move.
Kevin Harvick has 35 Cup starts at Martinsville and just one 2011 win. It's a little bit surprising that he hasn't done better than a 15th-place average there because he grew up with short track racing.
“Some guys just have a knack for Martinsville," Harvick said. "There are some weekends when I show up and I feel good about where I’m at and some weekends I just feel like I’ve never been there before. You look at this little bitty racetrack and you think it would be so simple, and you go out there and it becomes so hard.”
It was apparent at Phoenix that Harvick and the new package weren't on the same page like years past. That, coupled with his track history is why he's 15/ to win Sunday. It's been a while since seeing odds that high on him.
Martin Truex Jr. finished second at Phoenix two weeks ago with this same package and he's been very good at Martinsville the past three years.
“We’ve certainly got some unfinished business going into Martinsville this weekend,’’ said Truex who is 5-to-1 to win. “It’s a place that wasn’t one of my favorites early in my career, but the last few years, I feel like I’ve really started to get a handle on it.
“A lot of that can be attributed to having a really good crew chief and driving fast cars. It would mean a lot to win there especially after how the last race there ended up. I’m confident that we’ll have a fast SiriusXM Toyota Camry this weekend and be right there to have a shot at the end of the race.”
Truex has started from the pole in two of his last five Martinsville start. He was third last fall, fourth in the spring and runner-up in the fall of 2017. He's truly evolved into very good driver there after having issues in the first half of his career.
The Phoenix race saw Ryan Blaney leading late and finish third, the best among all Team Penske Mustangs. Joey Logano was 10th and Brad Keselowski was 19th. Logano won at Martinville last fall, but mediocre runs at Phoenix have me believing Blaney will be the best of Penske this week.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (8/5)
3) #12 Ryan Blaney (20/1)
4) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (7/1)