Following five exciting races to start the season, NASCAR now turns its sights to one of the most legendary short tracks in the sport for the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
And with a track that's just over a half-mile in distance and banks at just 12 degrees also known as the "Paperclip," anything can happen.
Thanks to a great run in the last two races, including a win at Bristol in the last running at a short track, Carl Edwards sits atop the Sprint Cup standings. But with the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski just mere points behind him, no lead is safe this early in the year.
After five different drivers have won a race with no driver repeating in Victory Lane, could NASCAR fans see much of the same at Martinsville? Or can Edwards, Earnhardt, Keselowski and others secure the elusive second victory that would immediately put them in the Chase for the Sprint Cup without question?
Before the drivers take to the track for qualifying and the green flag gets waved on Sunday, here is a look at the STP 500 information along with the latest team news and top drivers for the race.
Site: Martinsville Speedway, Ridgeway, Va.
Date: Sunday, March 30
Start Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||185||1||3||3|
Latest Team News
It's been a rough start for Stewart-Haas Racing, but things appear to be turning around.
With Tony Stewart recording his second straight top-five finish at Auto Club Speedway, he now finds himself just outside of the top 16 drivers to qualify for the Chase at 17th. It also appears he's having a little fun recently, per NASCAR:
Along with Stewart having recent success for SHR, Danica Patrick has also experienced a recent surge. A 14th-place finish at Fontana gave the polarizing figure her second consecutive top-20 finish and moved her up to 27th in the NASCAR rankings.
As for Hendrick Motorsports, it wasn't a great week at Fontana. Both Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson suffered cut tires, Johnson's coming at a terrible time with him leading late, and not a single driver finished inside the top 10.
Jeff Gordon, who finished just behind Junior for 13th, voiced his frustration over how things went down for his team following the race:
As disappointing as the finish was today it was fun to have such a good car this weekend and a great crowd @ACSupdates.— Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) March 23, 2014
While some teams are hoping to continue finding success at Martinsville, Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises are mourning the loss of Petty's wife, Lynda. It also comes on the same week that the team plans to roll out a retro paint scheme for Aric Almirola, a throwback to Petty's days behind the wheel.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Perhaps the strongest driver through the first three races, Earnhardt ended his streak of three straight top-two finishes with a poor showing at Bristol and followed that up with a decent showing at Auto Club Speedway.
Now Junior returns to a track where he's not only comfortable but also has a track record that proves he has a chance to compete for a win. NASCAR's most popular driver has 10 top-fives and 15 top-10s along with an average finish of 13.2.
Earnhardt has been so comfortable lately on the race track that he has actually been driving around in another car, as NASCAR on Fox points out:
With the track record that Junior has at Martinsville, expect to see him return to the top of the leaderboard and either retain the position that he has in the rankings or move ahead of Edwards by the end of Sunday.
Though he hasn't won a race to this point in the season, Gordon has been near the top of the pack during almost every race.
The 42-year-old won at the track in the most recent race back in October and should be the favorite to repeat again, as Micah Roberts of Sporting News points out:
Jeff Gordon won the fall race at Martinsville last season and gained the eighth grandfather's clock (the trophy for winning) of his Hall-of-Fame career. Over 42 starts, Gordon has also notched 27 top-5 finishes. If it weren't for Johnson, Gordon would be the hands-down favorite to win, but he still comes in at his lowest odds of the season to win a race at 5-to-1.
Beyond his great history, the thing that makes Gordon appear to be the best value this week is that he's on a roll. Last week at Fontana, he had his best car of the season though he came up with his worst finish, thanks in part to a Clint Bowyer spin, while Gordon was leading, that brought out a late caution flag. Gordon's 13th-place finish was his first finish outside the top-10 this season.
Along with his eight wins at the short track, Gordon also has 27 top-fives and 34 top-10s. Following up a great start to the season should be expected for the "Rainbow Warrior" as he enters a race that he's very comfortable running in.
And with one of his closest competitors at the track in Denny Hamlin suffering through an injury that kept him out of the race at Fontana, the door is wide open for Gordon to take the checkered flag and maintain his spot in the top five of the rankings.
Speaking of Hamlin, his return to the track now appears to be imminent. And with it coming at Martinsville, the timing couldn't be more perfect.
The Joe Gibbs racing driver had to miss the race at Auto Club Speedway, but Jenna Fryer has the latest on his return and NASCAR's response:
Denny Hamlin cleared to race at Martinsville. Says small piece of metal was found in his eye at hospital— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) March 26, 2014
#NASCAR: "It is believed that the metal was actually the source of Hamlin’s vision issues," and not sinus infection care center diagnosed— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) March 26, 2014
Now that he is back on the track, that means bad things for other drivers with hopes of pulling off a win at the paperclip. With four wins, nine top-fives and 13 top-10s at the short track, the STP 500 could be Hamlin's coming-out party this season.
If Hamlin is fully healthy and doesn't have any setbacks before the race on Sunday afternoon, he will not only be competitive but could also be running at the front for most of the race.
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter.