The west coast swing is behind us, as with temperatures finally warming up back east, it’s time to hit some historic tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
This week, we head to the first real short track of the season – the Martinsville Speedway. Sunday’s STP 500 (2 p.m. ET/FS1/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be met with tons of storylines surrounding it.
Here are the top five.
Next Stretch Of Races Won’t Be Aero Dependent
It’s no secret, the start of NASCAR’s new aero package has been a big fat flop. While the racing hasn’t actually gotten any worse, it also hasn’t really gotten any better either. With the wholesale changes that were being made between this year and last, we should have seen a noticeable difference in the racing packages.
Instead, we haven’t.
Forgive when I say, I’m happy to not have to worry about this new aero package over the next month. Yes, a race at Texas lies ahead next weekend, but really between now and mid May, we shouldn’t be talking much about the “aero package.”
That’s a good thing.
This weekend kicks off a stretch of three short tracks in four races. Martinsville (VA), Bristol (Tenn) on April 7 and Richmond on April 13 are up next. None of these tracks are aero dependent. Thank God!
Then, after a week off to observe Easter, it’s to Talladega (April 28) and Dover (May 5) in back-to-back weeks following. Neither of those tracks will be talked about much in terms of the aero packages either. Yes, Talladega is the first race without a restrictor plate, but the tapered spacer is still on them which in turn will still make it similar to the past Talladega races anyways. There shouldn’t be much of a change.
Dover, is a one-mile track that won’t be too aero dependent either. It never is. Think of this race running a lot like we saw in Phoenix.
So, between now and the Kansas race in mid-May, we can see some true racing again.
Expect Top Drivers To Once Again Be Favorites
This new aero package, here I go again, was supposed to even the playing field per say. Well, it’s only gotten wider in terms of the big teams and everyone else. Only Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have visited victory lane this season and if you go back to the end of last season in general, they’ve won seven races in-a-row and eight of the last nine overall. Even that one race that someone else won (Kevin Harvick at Texas) was later determined to be won by an illegal car. With that, the last legal car to win a race not of JGR or Penske was Chase Elliott’s win in Kansas on Oct. 21 of last year.
I don’t see that streak ending this weekend either.
The top drivers at Martinsville lately have also been the top drivers in this time frame.
Kyle Busch has won the last two straight races in dominating fashion to go along with a top six finish in every race this year as well. He has seven consecutive top five finishes on the Martinsville paperclip including three top two finishes in his last four starts there overall. He’s also led at least 100 laps in five of his last six starts there too.
His teammate Denny Hamlin has two straight top five finishes on the season and hasn’t finished worse than 11th all year. He’s won five times in Martinsville during his career and was runner-up last Fall.
Martin Truex Jr. has three straight top four finishes on the .526-mile oval and six top seven finishes in his last eight tries. He has alternated second and eighth place finishes the last four weeks of the season and should be in the hunt for one of those results again on Sunday.
These are the top three to watch.
So are the Penske trio too.
Brad Keselowski has three top three finishes in his last four starts on the year. He also has 11 top 10 finishes in his last 14 Martinsville starts. Since 2016, he’s finished worse than fifth just once and that was a 10th place run last spring.
Joey Logano has been fast this season and won the fall race. He has six top six finishes in his last 10 Martinsville starts.
Ryan Blaney has two straight top five finishes on the season and led 145 laps in a third place run in this race last year.
In practice, JGR and Penske had some of the best long run speed too. Busch, Hamlin and Truex ranked in the top six in both practice sessions on the 10 lap average chart. The Penske trio were in the top 15 in both too.
Want to bet against either of these drivers?
Stewart-Haas Racing Still Finding Speed But Strong This Weekend
It’s not like 2019 has been a down year for SHR, it’s just that at this point last year, they’ve already won three times. This year, they’re winless and heading to a track where Clint Bowyer won a year ago. Can they get back on track this Sunday?
Bowyer, has three top seven finishes in four tries at Martinsville since taking over for Tony Stewart in 2017. But, he has just one top 10 finish in five tries this season. He was fifth and second respectively on the 10 lap average chart.
Daniel Suarez’ best finish is 10th this year and that is also his lone top 10 in 2019 too. He was ninth in the fall race at Martinsville last year but 32nd, 15th and 18th respectively in his other three starts. He too was quick though. He was P2 in the first practice session of the day and seventh in final practice on the 10 lap averages.
Aric Almirola has four straight top 10 finishes on the season but hasn’t scored a top 10 at Martinsville since an eighth place run in 2014. He finished 14th and 11th in the two races last year but was second and fifth on the 10 lap average chart.
Kevin Harvick is normally their best bet for SHR as he’s started 2019 off with four straight top 10 finishes, including three of which being fourth place runs. But, Harvick has just two top five finishes on the paperclip since 2012. He hasn’t led a lap there since 2016 as nine of this last 13 Martinsville starts have seen him fail to lead a lap.
With how the drivers above have fared, do you trust this group to win on Sunday? I think they’ll just take solid top 10’s with their speed.
Hendrick Motorsports Eyeing Redemption, But Does This Come
2019 has started a lot like 2018 did for Hendrick. That’s not a good thing. With such a good track for them historically coming up in Martinsville though, you would think this is just what the doctor ordered. But, with how badly they’ve run this season, I don’t think this is the week to get out of their ruts.
Yes, HMS has won 24 times in Martinsville, most by any team on any track in series history. Also, starting with its first win at the track in April 1984, Hendrick Motorsports has won 35 percent of the races at Martinsville (24 of 70). It has won at least one race there in 19 of the 36 seasons since and gone on a three-race win streak at the track on four different occasions. The organization has swept the top two finishing positions five times and had at least one car finish in the top 10 in 62 of 70 races since April 1984. Hendrick Motorsports’ 9,241 laps led at Martinsville make for 27 percent of the total laps led at the track since the April 1984 win. The organization has won at least one race at Martinsville in five of the last seven seasons.
But, do they get the win on Sunday?
Alex Bowman finished seventh in this race last year but 17th in the fall. He’s came home 35th and 21st respectively the last two weeks of the year and has yet to nab a top 10 this year.
William Byron was 20th and 39th respectively in the two races last year as a rookie but has just one top 15 finish all season and that came last week in Fontana.
Chase Elliott does have three top 10 finishes in his last four Martinsville starts but just one of which was in the top five. He too has just one top 10 finish this season with a ninth place effort in Phoenix.
That leaves Jimmie Johnson. He hasn’t won a race in nearly two seasons now. At one point, he was the best at Martinsville in scoring 17 straight top 10 finishes there. From 2002 through 2016, the worst Johnson finished on the paperclip was 12th. Form 2017 on, his best finish has been 12th.
Johnson, does have two top 10 finishes this season but his best result was eighth in Phoenix.
Does this group stand a chance? They’d be happy for a top five finish I think.
Chip Ganassi Racing May Struggle, JTG Daugherty Racing May Surprise
So far, the top Chevrolet team in 2019 has belonged to Chip Ganassi Racing, Kyle Larson has three 12th place finishes and a sixth place effort in Phoenix and seventh in Daytona in 2019. He’s had speed but penalties have derailed his finishes.
Meanwhile, Kurt Busch is off to a stellar start in his CGR debut with four top 10 finishes in five starts. He’s honestly the top driver not of the JGR/Penske/SHR camp.
But, don’t expect a whole lot this weekend in Martinsville from them.
The last time Busch scored a top five was his win in 2014. He’s also only had two top 10 finishes in his last 26 starts. The other was a sixth place effort last Fall.
Kyle Larson’s last top 10 was a third place finish in the spring race in 2016. His five finishes since? 14th, 17th, 37th, 16th and 37th respectively. He’s DNF’d in two of his last three starts there and has led just 29 combined laps in his Martinsville career.
With saying all of this, one sleeper team this week may be the JTG Daugherty Racing camp. They’ve been solid this season and were fast in Phoenix.
Chris Buescher has two top 13 finishes in his last four Martinsville starts. He also enters with four straight top 20 finishes on the season.
While Ryan Preece is a rookie in Martinsville and has struggled as of late on the season, this No. 47 Chevrolet that he’s driving has been fast on the paperclip though. AJ Allmendinger drove it to eight top 15 finishes in 10 tries. He was eighth in this race last year and runner-up in 2016. He was also sixth in the spring race of 2017 to give this car three straight top 10 finishes.
Preece, is a great modified driver and very talented on short tracks. He’s a sure sleeper this week.