Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 25, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Martinsville Speedway is NASCAR’s oldest active Sprint Cup track, dating back to 1949. It’s also the series’ shortest at 0.526-mile. 

    Last weekend it was fast, wide and high-banked in Southern California. This weekend drivers face narrow, close and flat short track racing conditions in the mountains of Southern Virginia. 

    This monument to NASCAR’s past was built using a unique paperclip shape once described as “two dragstrips connected by a sharp left-hander on each end.”  The track itself is relatively flat as well, on both the straightaways and the corners.

    Expect tires to once again be under the microscope.

    Last weekend’s race featured four-wide, 200-miles-per-hour racing on one of NASCAR’s biggest tracks. Goodyear’s tires, although specifically designed for each race track, took a real beating as teams pushed them to the limit using low air pressures and radical camber settings.

    This weekend, crew chiefs will again be torturing the Goodyears with radical camber angles and low air pressures. However, speeds at Martinsville are dramatically slower—about 100 miles per hour slower than Fontana.

    With Bristol Motor Speedway now offering two- and sometimes three-wide racing, Martinsville remains for the most part a single-lane track. A second lane will be available on the outside once the track rubbers in, but bumping a slower car out of the way is still a part of racing at Martinsville. 

    What that means is: If you're a driver and you’ve got a grudge against someone, Martinsville is the ideal place for payback. So, that bump and subsequent spin, which places your adversary 20 spots to the rear of the field, can always be blamed on the closeness of the racing. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Another Race, Another New Winner?

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    When Kyle Busch crossed the finish line first in the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, he became the fifth driver in the season’s first five races to celebrate in Victory Lane.

    There’s good reason to think that trend will continue this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. 

    Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, last year’s winners on the paperclip-shaped track, are both searching for their first wins of 2014, unquestionably the “Kings of Martinsville” with eight wins apiece. 

    And of course there's Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and a host of others who are also looking for their first win of the year.

    A sixth other winner in the first six races would be a Chase-era record.

Stewart-Haas Racing Gets Its Groove on

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    Tony Stewart
    Tony StewartAndrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Stewart-Haas Racing appears to have found its groove. The four-car organization had a good day at Auto Club Speedway (ACS) last Sunday. Kurt Busch finished third, Tony Stewart was fifth and Danica Patrick was 14th.

    After sitting out the final 15 races of 2013 due to a leg injury and enduring a rough start to his return, Stewart has now posted consecutive top-five finishes at Bristol and ACS in the last two races. 

    The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is still looking for his first victory of 2014, securing him a spot in the Chase. Martinsville Speedway, which at one time was one of Smoke’s least favorite tracks (he once proclaimed that it should be paved over and turned into a parking lot) has since become one of his favorites. He has won there three times, most recently in 2011.

    Teammate Kevin Harvick has one win and 11 top-10s. Harvick’s luck has been nothing but bad for the last three races and he’s ready for a good afternoon at the track. Martinsville could be just the place.

    Unfortunately, Martinsville might be one of Kurt Busch’s worst tracks. It’s either wreckers or checkers here for Busch, who has just one win and only four top-10s in 27 outings. Patience is a virtue at Martinsville and perhaps Busch comes up a bit short in that department.

    Danica Patrick has only two races at Martinsville on her resume, but she’s been up on the wheel at the last two races, especially at Bristol. She’s still honing her short track skills and there’s no better place to do that than Martinsville. Look for another top-15 result for her.

Is This the Weekend for Gordon?

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    Jeff Gordon
    Jeff GordonAndrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Jeff Gordon was understandably upset after Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway. 

    He took his frustration out on the folks at Goodyear after he became an unwilling victim in an afternoon full of tire failures that forced a late caution flag as Gordon was within reach of his first win of 2014.

    “I hate (that) the caution came out,” said Gordon in a post-race interview on pit road. “I hate (it that) Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for.”

    No driver is as overdue for a win in 2014 as much as Gordon. After finishing the season last year on a relative high note by winning at Martinsville, the fourth to the last race of the Chase, Gordon’s No. 24 team has been nearly flawless this season with four top-10s out of five races. Gordon’s 13th-place finish at Fontana was only after he took tires on his final pit stop.

    Martinsville is just the place where the four-time Cup champion could win his first of the season and lock himself into the Chase.

Steady as She Goes for Earnhardt Jr.

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    After a dream start to the season, reality appears to have set in for the No. 88 team. 

    It is really hard to consistently do well, much less win at the Sprint Cup level. 

    I’m not saying that Earnhardt’s National Guard team isn’t capable of delivering more wins this season (they will). It’s just that everything has to be near perfect on a race weekend for those wins to happen.

    (Or sometimes you can catch a lucky break.)

    Luck can happen, no doubt. Or you can have a driver who works his butt off, as Earnhardt Jr. did last weekend at Fontana to salvage a 12th-place finish after having issues earlier in the race. That showed everyone that this driver and this team really does mean business this year.

    Martinsville unfortunately isn’t one of Junior’s better tracks. One bright spot is that he does have 15 top-10 finishes. But his win column after 28 attempts is still at zero.

    With teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon both looking for their first wins of the season, there may not be enough room up at the front for another Hendrick car or two (there’s still Kasey Kahne to contend with, as well.)

    Regardless of who is up there in the top five, you can expect that Steve Letarte will once again bring his best game on Sunday, and that means he'll give Earnhardt Jr. every opportunity to win.

    The driver just needs to deliver the goods again this weekend. 

Austin Dillon Quietly Getting It Done

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    Austin Dillon
    Austin DillonRandy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    His fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year challenger, Kyle Larson, is getting all the headlines. And last weekend, Larson did get all the attention with a runner-up finish.

    Austin Dillon is quietly building a resume of top-15 results that has him sitting comfortably in ninth place in the driver standings. Larson is 16th.

    The Richard Childress Racing driver’s last two outings at Bristol and Fontana were both solid, with finishes just outside of the top 10 (11th at both tracks). He’s in the upper half of the Sprint Cup field when it comes to quality passes (according to NASCAR’s loop data), which means he’s been aggressive and isn’t just driving around in the back of the field, trying to learn the game and hoping attrition moves him forward.

    Dillon is doing exactly the kind of job that those who know him well expected him to do in his rookie season. His pairing with veteran crew chief Gil Martin is working out exceptionally well. 

    Martin kept the young rookie’s head in the game last Sunday even after Dillon tagged the wall late in the race and suffered minor damage to his Chevrolet SS. A subsequent speeding penalty on pit road while having the damage repaired might have sent any other rookie’s train off the rails. Dillon kept his cool, showed maturity beyond his years and drove from 27th up to an 11th-place finish.

    Martinsville is a beast of another kind, however, and it will take every bit of the young driver’s short track skills to keep the fenders on his No. 3 Chevrolet SS and bring home another top-15 finish.

    Both Dillon and his younger sibling, Ty, have logged thousands of laps driving on both dirt and paved short tracks while growing up. And lest we forget...Austin Dillon did beat some of the best in the sport in the truck race at Eldora last year.

    All strong credentials for this young driver to do well at Martinsville. 

Victory Remains Elusive for Kenseth

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    Matt Kenseth
    Matt KensethTodd Warshaw/Getty Images

    It’s not like Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team aren't trying. It’s just that it is that hard to win at the Sprint Cup level.

    This is still the same driver and the same team that won seven times in the Cup series in 2013. They did score their first win early (at Las Vegas) last season. So maybe that's why we expect them to have a victory this early in 2014. 

    This season, they’re just a step off from the competition. With three top-10s in five races, you can’t say this team is bad. But you can't be even one step off from the competition. Once again, it's hard to win at the Sprint Cup level. Ask Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon about it.

    Martinsville isn’t one of Kenseth’s better tracks, even though he cut his teeth sportsman racing on some of the coolest short tracks in the Midwest like Slinger Super Speedway and Madison International Speedway. (They are very cool. I’ve been to both.)

    With so many of the series' best drivers all vying for a win and thinking Martinsville might just be the place, expect the crowd up front to be full of heavy hitters. 

    Expect Kenseth to be in the thick of it, too.

Team Penske Ready to Rebound

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    Brad Keselowski (left) and Joey Logano
    Brad Keselowski (left) and Joey LoganoEd Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Both Team Penske Cup drivers Brad Keselowski (fourth) and Joey Logano (10th) sit inside the top-10 in driver points. And a few weeks ago, this duo were superstars at Las Vegas with Logano capturing the pole and Keselowski scoring the win (Logano was fourth).

    Moving to Team Penske has been good for Logano. He’s shown a new level of maturity and confidence that is reinforcing his skills. He just might have us digging out the old “sliced bread” nickname before the end of the season.

    If you look up journeyman racer in the motorsports dictionary, you’ll likely find a photo of Keselowski. His family pedigree is racing. He grew up in and around racing. There was never any question what young Brad would do for a living. His title run in 2012 was impressive, especially in the final races of the Chase that year. He did, after all, beat Jimmie Johnson for the title.

    This duo will deliver team owner Roger Penske even more championships as the years pass. Keselowski was proud to deliver The Captain that first Sprint Cup title. Logano should do the same in a few years. Yes, I did just write that. The kid from Connecticut has the talent. Watch him race. He’s now got the team to get him there.

    Martinsville hasn’t been a good track for either of these drivers in the past. But neither of them had the kind of momentum they bring with them this weekend. Both teams had bad race days at Fontana. That’s in their rear-view mirror. Look for them to leap into the top-10 once again in Martinsville.

Johnson Watches Points, but Wants a Win

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    Chad Knaus (left) and Jimmie Johnson
    Chad Knaus (left) and Jimmie JohnsonRobert Laberge/Getty Images

    Martinsville Speedway is on a long list of race tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit (Charlotte Motor Speedway is another) that could easily pass as Jimmie Johnson’s playroom. Johnson’s record on this 0.5-mile bull ring might best be described as phenomenal.

    When you win eight times out of 24 attempts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, there’s no other word to describe it. Having a .333 percentage in any game is something special.

    He’s also accumulated 21 top-10s in those 24 attempts.

    The No. 48 team, although winless so far this season, isn’t running poorly. And just for insurance, Johnson said his team is still watching their points (he's sixth in points), even if winning has become the goal for everyone.

    Last weekend’s late-race tire failure, which happened while Johnson was leading the race, was a real buzz kill.

    “We did everything we could to win the race today, unfortunately something out of our control let us down,” said Johnson in a post-race interview. “I had that feeling I thought we were going to win here at my home track once again and just a bummer it didn’t work out. 

    “We will come back next week to a very strong race track for this Lowe’s Chevrolet and hopefully get the job done there.”

    Yeah, that about says it all. 

Hamlin Health Issues

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    Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

    Denny Hamlin didn’t finish the Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway last year. While his fellow drivers used a helicopter after the race to get to the airport and their private jet for the flight home, Hamlin’s helicopter ride out of ACS took him to the hospital and the start of a long recovery from a serious injury. 

    The news of Hamlin’s sinus infection and his not being cleared to drive came only minutes before the start of Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

    A sinus infection normally doesn't sideline a driver. He's put on antibiotics, a decongestant, maybe given some Tylenol and then sent on his merry way.

    This was apparently something more serious than a sinus infection.

    When asked by the media at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday morning, team principle J.D. Gibbs said:

    He had a little sinus infection from a while ago, but he probably started (with it) Friday and then -- the hard part, I think (is) he can still drive, but he brought it up and was concerned about it and wanted to make sure it was taken care of and brought it up.  

    The doctors said, ‘Hey, you have to do this right away.’  Hopefully it’s nothing, but you have to get checked out.

    Sam Hornish Jr., who was at the track as a possible substitute driver for Matt Kenseth, whose wife was due to have a baby, filled in for Hamlin in the No. 11 FedEx Toyota. Hornish Jr. finished 17th.

    Another statement released by Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday evening confirmed that Hamlin was not medically cleared to race because of a sinus infection that affected his vision.

    Since then, nothing else has been released by the team.

    How serious is this sinus infection? Will it keep Hamlin out of his ride again this weekend? 

    Hamlin’s season had gotten off to a promising start. His team was the hottest thing going at Daytona (second), cooled off a bit at Phoenix (19th) and Las Vegas (12th) and then returned to form with a top-10 (ninth) at Bristol. 

    He can recover from missing one race. Two might force the issue and give Hamlin little choice but to win a race to get into the Chase since he’s already dropped out of the top 10 in points (11th) with a lot of tough competition all around him.

    Hopefully, he’ll be back in the car this weekend at Martinsville, a track where he’s had four wins in 16 attempts, and if healthy, he could be a strong contender to score that first win of the season.

Television Ratings Continue to Slide

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    Josh Holmberg-USA TODAY Sports

    Courtesy of

    NASCAR continued to generate soft — but not terrible — ratings over the weekend.

    Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Auto Club 400 from Fontana (CA) earned a 4.0 overnight rating on FOX, down 11% from last year (4.5), but up 18% from the rain-shortened 2011 race (3.4). The 4.0 overnight is the second-lowest for the Fontana race since 2000 (3.7), ahead of only 2011.

    The 4.0 overnight is also the lowest of the season-to-date, trailing the previous mark of 4.1 set by the Bristol and Las Vegas races.

    Overnight ratings have now declined for all five NASCAR Sprint Cup races this season.