Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup at Martinsville

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 29, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup at Martinsville

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    Mike McCarn

    There are three things you need to know about Martinsville Speedway: old-school cool, grandfather clocks and red hot dogs.

    This place is the very definition of old school. Martinsville Speedway has been staging stock-car racing before there was a NASCAR.

    Ask any Sprint Cup driver about Martinsville Speedway, and you’ll likely get some variation of a love-hate answer. Its narrow straightaways and tight corners are reminiscent of the race tracks where many learned their craft. Yet Martinsville, with its concrete and asphalt surface, presents a challenge like no other short track they've raced on.

    The winner here receives one of the more iconic trophies in all of sports—a Ridgeway Grandfather Clock. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon each have eight of them.

    What do Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer have in common? They’re all zero for whatever at Martinsville.

    Before he claimed his first of three grandfather clocks, Tony Stewart suggested that Martinsville Speedway should be paved over and turned into a shopping center. 

    It can be that kind of place.

    And the hot dogs? Priced at $2 each, they’re skinny, bright red Jesse Jones hot dogs served wrapped in wax paper with chili, onions, mustard and slaw. They are amazingly addictive. You can't eat just one. 

Martinsville Speedway by the Numbers

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    Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

    STP 500

    The Place: Martinsville Speedway

    The Date: Sunday, March 30

    The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

    TV: Fox, 12:30 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 263 miles (500 laps)

    Last year’s winner: Jimmie Johnson

    Youngest Pole Winner: Ricky Rudd (04/26/1981—24 years, 7 months, 14 days)

    Oldest Pole Winner: Morgan Shepherd (04/26/1987—45 years, 6 months, 14 days)

    Youngest Winner: Richard Petty (04/10/1960—22 years, 9 months, 8 days)

    Oldest Winner: Harry Gant (09/22/1991—51 years, 8 months, 12 days)

    Races Won from Pole: 21

    Last Race Won from Pole: Jimmie Johnson (04/07/2013)

    Race Record: Jeff Gordon 82.223 mph (09/22/1996)

    Qualifying Record: Denny Hamlin 99.595 mph (10/27/2013)

    All-Time Race Winner (active drivers): Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon (8)

    Martinsville weather 

    Things to do in Martinsville, Va., area

A Brief History

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images
    • Martinsville Speedway’s birth predates NASCAR. Why build a racetrack in the middle of Virginia? Because fast cars in the middle of moonshine country was just a natural thing. When H. Clay Earles built his racetrack in 1947, he knew that folks where he lived would pay money to see those fast cars race each other.
    • When NASCAR was founded the following year, Martinsville Speedway was among the first tracks to appear on the schedule, hosting the sixth race of the young series on July 4, 1948.
    • Originally built with only 750 permanent seats, crowds swelled to near 6,000 for those early races. Today’s seating is 55,000, including VIP suites and skyboxes.
    • In 2004, the track was sold to International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which owns it today.
    • At 0.526 miles in length, Martinsville Speedway is NASCAR’s shortest track used in the Sprint Cup Series.
    • “The King” Richard Petty holds the record for the most Sprint Cup wins at 15.

Storylines to Follow

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    Denny Hamlin (l) and Matt Kenseth
    Denny Hamlin (l) and Matt KensethMatt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Hamlin’s Health

    Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin missed last weekend’s Auto Club 400 due to a medical issue. At the time, his absence was described as being the result of “complications from a sinus infection.”

    Little else was said on race day, which left the door open to wild speculation as to the real cause. Dale Earnhardt Jr. openly wondered why he wanted to hear a better explanation from Hamlin so as to clear up any misconceptions as to the cause of the medical issue. 

    Upon further medical examination during the week, it was discovered that Hamlin actually had a small sliver of metal lodged near the lens of his eye, which caused him great discomfort and mimicked the side effects of a severe sinus infection.

    Hamlin has subsequently been cleared to drive at Martinsville.

    Six for Six?

    The Sprint Cup Series has seen five different winners in its first five races of 2014. That could easily grow to six in six, as there are a handful of drivers teetering on the edge of winning, including Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have each won here eight times. 

    Both men were in position to win last weekend but were tripped up while in the closing laps.

    Johnson had a tire failure that forced him onto pit road while leading the race. Gordon, who inherited the lead when Johnson pitted, then lost it when the caution came out with three laps remaining.

    Gordon believed he too had a tire that was losing air, and he relinquished his lead to come onto pit road for fresh tires. He finished 13th, and Johnson finished 24th. 

    These Hendrick teammates could be running one-two as the field races toward the checkered flag. Question is: In which order?

    Mother Nature to Spoil the Party?

    After a week’s respite from the questionable East Coast spring weather, NASCAR’s competitors once again face the possibility of an altered weekend schedule due to rain. 

    The two group qualifying sessions were able to be completed on Friday.

    Saturday’s Sprint Cup “Happy Hour” practice session and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) race later in the afternoon look to be in serious jeopardy. Sunday’s weather forecast looks dry.

    Larson vs. Dillon: The Battle Continues

    Kyle Larson’s runner-up finish shone a bright spotlight on the young rookie from Chip Ganassi Racing. However, his main Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition, Richard Childress Racing (RCR) driver Austin Dillon, has been flying under the radar and scoring points. He sits ninth in driver points. Larson is 16th.

    The RCR driver has only one top-10 finish so far, compared to Larson’s two. But Dillon’s overall performance places him higher in points.

    Larson has one Sprint Cup race at Martinsville on his resume—last October. He finished 42nd. Sunday will be Dillon’s Cup debut at the track. He has competed in four NCWTS at Martinsville, with a best finish of third (10/29/2011).

    Both drivers will start from the back half of the field Sunday. Larson will start from 28th position; Dillon from 34th.

Drivers to Watch

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    Kyle Busch (l) and Jimmie Johnson
    Kyle Busch (l) and Jimmie JohnsonAndrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Jimmie Johnson

    One would have to be crazy not to consider Johnson among the top three drivers who could likely appear in Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon.

    The No. 48 team didn’t win eight races at Martinsville just by being lucky. Several of those wins were hard-fought, final-lap, door-to-door battles. Johnson gets down and dirty with the best of them, despite his mellow demeanor.

    Jeff Gordon

    For two weekends in a row, this team has come very close to victory only to have it snatched away in the final moments of the race. Gordon was extremely frustrated after the Fontana race was over, and for good reason.

    His car's performance was among the best all afternoon. It will likely be good again this Sunday. Like his teammate Johnson, several of Gordon’s wins at Martinsville were bare-knuckles battles. Nothing will stop the No. 24 team this weekend.

    Kyle Busch

    While everyone is talking about the possibility of six different winners in the first six races of 2014, Busch would like everyone to change the subject.

    How about talking about a first repeat winner? Martinsville has not been a good track for Toyota, which would only make it sweeter should Busch win from the pole.

    Joey Logano

    It has to be tough when your teammate has already won a race, essentially securing a spot in the Chase, and he comes to the track every weekend all chilled out, and you’re not because the pressure is still on for you to win.

    Logano hasn’t won for lack of effort. This team is among the fastest every weekend. But the past two weekends have been problematic for this Penske squad. You can’t have a problem and win at the Cup level. It’s hard to imagine three bad weekends in a row for this group.

    Tony Stewart

    When you’re hot, you’re hot. Smoke is showing a lot of the Smoke of old lately with a top five at Fontana, reminding everyone that he's fully recovered from last year's serious leg injury. Stewart would certainly like to take the pressure off this early in the season by getting a win.

    It took several frustrating race weekends early in his Sprint Cup career for Stewart to figure out the Martinsville track. But once he did, he has scored three wins and 15 top 10s. This team was fast in practice and could easily make it win No. 4 this Sunday.

    Denny Hamlin

    Rested, ready and anxious. After an unplanned weekend off, Hamlin topped Friday’s practice charts and starts on the front row alongside his teammate.

    His four wins at Martinsville (his home track) came in years when Hamlin was also in the Chase. A win here obviously puts him back in the Chase after a year’s absence. Just as important, it puts a second Joe Gibbs Racing car into postseason play. 

Sleepers (and Maybe a Dark Horse)

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Matt Kenseth

    Not really a sleeper but definitely a team going through a sophomore slump. This team is solid during practice, fine in qualifying and then on race day just not good enough.

    Maybe we expect too much from a team that had seven wins last season. But then again, this team set that level of expectation, didn’t it? Martinsville isn’t one of Kenseth’s better tracks. However, a new daughter could be the extra spark needed to move this team from also-rans and into the winner’s column.

    Kevin Harvick

    Here’s another driver whom you almost feel embarrassed to call a sleeper or even a dark horse for any Sprint Cup race, given his great racing record. But racing is all about what have you done for me lately, and since Phoenix this team has fallen on a run of bad luck that needs to be broken—fast.

    Harvick isn’t the kind of driver who will deal with the kind of luck this team has had for much longer without blowing a major gasket, something that could be disastrous for this team. It’s time to make "Happy Harvick" happy again.

    Clint Bowyer

    If this team is expecting to make it to the Chase on points, it had better get a move on. Or maybe Bowyer and co. are planning on getting into the postseason with a victory?

    Ten top-10 finishes at Martinsville in 16 attempts is a pretty good record. Bowyer is another driver who spent a lot of Saturday nights racing on a short track. He was fast in practice and qualified well. Here’s a true dark-horse favorite for Sunday.

    Danica Patrick

    OK, before you start throwing things, this is the dark-horse slide. And Patrick is a true dark-horse candidate. For the win? Perhaps. But I’m thinking that when the dust settles Sunday afternoon, there will be a lot more people who will be thinking that Patrick is for real in NASCAR than there were before Sunday’s race.

    Patrick has always done well in her career when surrounded by great talent, and there’s no better driving talent pound-for-pound than at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Qualifying Notes

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    MIKE MCCARN/Associated Press

    Kyle Busch won the Coors Light Pole Award for the 65th Annual STP 500 with a lap of 18.998 seconds, 99.674 mph. 

    With a first-round speed of 100.201 mph (18.898 seconds), Joey Logano (starts third) set the track qualifying record. The previous record was set by Denny Hamlin on Oct. 25, 2013 (99.595 mph/19.013 seconds).

    Hamlin will start alongside his teammate, making it an all-Joe Gibbs Racing front row.

    When asked about whether he could become the first repeat winner of 2014, Busch replied, "It would be nice definitely. I’d love to take home a grandfather clock. I don’t have one of those yet. It’s been a track that I’ve been really close at.

    "To finally close out the deal, you have to beat some good company—there’s always going to be guys that are fast. It’s just a matter of maybe outsmarting them or being the best of them…come lap 500."

    This is Busch’s first pole in 19 races at Martinsville Speedway.

    It’s his first pole and third top-10 start in 2014. Busch now has scored one pole in seven consecutive seasons.

Rookie Report

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    Alex Bowman
    Alex BowmanRandy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Alex Bowman (shown) led all rookie qualifiers with a lap of 19.193 seconds (98.661 mph). He’ll start 19th for Sunday’s STP 500.

    Martinsville is a tough place for rookies, no matter how much short-track experience the rookie driver might have. The remainder of the 2014 rookie class faired poorly, with all qualified in the back half of the field of 43 cars.

    Justin Allgaier starts 25th. Kyle Larson, who finished second last weekend on the big track at Fontana and has driven thousands of laps on short tracks, starts 28th. 

    Austin Dillon, who also has logged thousands of laps on short tracks across the southeast, found that Cup racing at Martinsville was something else. Dillon starts 34th, just one spot ahead of fellow rookie Cole Whitt.

    Ryan Truex (38th), Michael Annett (40th) and Parker Kligerman (41st) all needed to use an owner’s provisional to make the field.

And the Winner Is:

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    Jeff Gordon
    Jeff GordonHHP/Harold Hinson Photography for Chevrolet

    For the second week in a row, Jeff Gordon gets the nod.

    Maybe he's still angry about being robbed of victory and a sure ticket into the Chase (see above). Let's hope so. It's that kind of frustration energy that will fuel his drive to win Sunday.

    Before the race, Gordon offered a glimpse into his strategy on race day:

    You have to be aggressive on restarts, and that is just in general to where we go these days. There are some tracks that I feel I have done a good job with that and others that I haven’t. For me, this track is about finesse. This track is about patience.  

    If it comes down to a late caution, then I think, yes, it comes down to aggressiveness but also what line you are in. You want to be in that inside line, and if you are in that outside lane then you can be as aggressive as you want, but it’s not going to do a whole lot for you to get down and into that inside lane. 

    Gordon isn't expected to be the only aggressive driver behind the wheel Sunday. But he will be one (of two) with eight wins to his credit. 

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