Photo: Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Up to Speed: STP 500 at Martinsville Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

After completing the Western swing, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back east this weekend and straight to the first short track race of the season, with Sunday’s running of the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

A mainstay on the schedule since 1949, the historic half-mile, which is also the smallest on the circuit, will test both man and machine over 500 grueling laps.

The track has basically one groove, meaning the only way to pass will be the move we all know and love: the bump and run. Of course, that type of racing leads to a lot of bent sheet metal and tempers flaring, which is always entertaining.

To be successful at Martinsville, drivers have to have a special skill set that will let them be able to navigate the treacherous track and avoid trouble that is almost certain to happen around them at some point during the race. There are those who have taken to the track and excelled and those who have trouble each and every time they visit the track.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1947

Track Size: 0.526 mile oval (Turns banked 12 degrees, flat straightaways)

Race Length: 500 laps, 263 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages: 130 laps, Final stage: 240 laps

Pit Road Speed: 30 mph

Pace Car Speed: 35 mph

October 2016 Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (Started third, 92 laps led)

April 2016 Race Winner: Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota (Started seventh, 352 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (18.898 seconds, 100.201 mph – March 28, 2014)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Martinsville:

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 117.7
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 108.2
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 99.9
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 98.7
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 94.6
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 90.8
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 90.0
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 88.9
  • Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 88.8
  • Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 86.6

From the Driver’s Seat

“To me, the toughest part of Martinsville is you just never have a moment to breathe,” said Kurt Busch. “You have to be on your game nonstop for 500 laps because somebody’s on you, or you are on top of somebody the whole time, and there’s just no room for error.”

“Track position is everything, everywhere, but at Martinsville it is just so easy to lose it. It doesn’t take much to find yourself going backward, whether it’s a situation with someone bumping you out of the way or you get too high on the track and up in the marbles. Then, deal with what that does to the tires and, boom, next thing you know, you may have had a 10th-place car and now you are 18th. It’s a goal all day to work your way forward and then just to have smooth pit stops to carry you through those midpoints of the race. Then, at the end, when everything is on the line, you have to be aggressive and you can’t be afraid to use the fenders on people to get that solid finish.”

Last Time at Martinsville

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rolled into Martinsville last October, Jimmie Johnson was well on his way toward a seventh championship.

Johnson had won the previous week at Charlotte and headed into one of his best tracks on the circuit looking to punch his ticket to the championship race at Homestead.

After starting the day in third, Johnson overcame the issues of suffering some damage on track and running out of fuel later in the race, and took over the lead with 92 laps to go, never looking back en route to his ninth career win at the southern Virginia short track and his 79th career win in the Cup Series.

“Obviously an amazing way to finish the day, get a win here, get our ninth clock,” said Johnson.  “To win at Martinsville in the fall, from the Hendrick Motorsports side is a very meaningful victory for us.  So a lot of emotions are all coming together.”

“Obviously the bright spot and the shiny spot in all this is we’ve got a shot at a championship.  So we’re fired up and ready to go.  Very, very excited for the next couple weeks.  Certainly ready to go to Homestead and race, race for this thing.”

Johnson finished 1.291 seconds ahead of Brad Keselowski, with Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Jr., Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, and AJ Allmendinger rounding out the top-10.

Who to Watch

  • Jimmie Johnson – Johnson has struggled out of the gate thus far in 2017 with just one top-10 in the first five races of the season, but with Martinsville up ahead, things could definitely turn around for the No. 48 team. The seven-time champion has visited Martinsville victory lane nine times (2004, 2006, 2007 sweep, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, and most recently in October 2016), and also has 19 top-five finishes, 24 top-10 finishes, three poles, 2838 laps led, and an average finish of 7.3 in 30 starts.
  • Denny Hamlin – Still looking for his first win of the season, Hamlin heads to the track he has the most wins at this weekend with the goal of capturing another grandfather clock. In 22 starts, the Virginia native has five wins (2008, 2009 sweep, 2010, and 2015), as well as 12 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, three poles, 1363 laps led, and an average finish of 9.2.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the first five races of 2017 have not gone as planned for Earnhardt as the No. 88 team as they have yet to finish inside the top-10. However, a trip to Martinsville could be just what the doctor ordered. Earnhardt has one win (2014), 13 top-five finishes, 18 top-10 finishes, 972 laps led, and an average finish of 12.9 in 33 starts.
  • Brad Keselowski – With one win under his belt already this season, Keselowski will be looking to kill two birds with one stone this weekend by capturing his first win at Martinsville and another crucial win to add additional playoff points to his season tally. Keselowski has four career top-five finishes, three of which have come in the last four races, eight top-10 finishes, 171 laps led, and an average finish of 13.8 in 14 starts.
  • Kyle Busch – Busch dominated this race one year ago to finally win a race at Martinsville and get his own grandfather clock and will be looking to repeat that feat this weekend as he still looks for his first win of the season. In 23 starts, Busch has the one win, 11 top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, one pole, 842 laps led, and an average finish of 14.1.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, March 31

  • MENCS Practice (11:30 am to 12:45 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (4:35 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, April 1

  • MENCS Practice (10:00 am to 10:55 am – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (1:30 pm to 2:20 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, April 2

  • MENCS STP 500 (2:00 pm – 500 laps, 263 miles – FOX Sports 1)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.