Martinsville Speedway may be the smallest track on NASCAR's Sprint Cup circuit, but as racing fans will witness on Sunday, drivers tend to go big or go home in an effort to tame "The Paperclip."
The STP 500 will emanate from Ridgeway, Va., where the racing is sure to be both chaotic and exciting. The half-mile track makes for some interesting situations that aren't often encountered at most other tracks, and that is what often makes Martinsville one of the year's best races.
It takes a special kind of driver to thrive at Martinsville, which explains why Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have won there on 16 occasions combined. That would seem to suggest that Hendrick Motorsports has this race in the bag, but there are plenty of intriguing contenders who can potentially spoil the party.
Here is everything you need to know about when and how to watch the STP 500, along with a glance at the top contenders looking to pull out a victory.
Where: Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Va.
When: Sunday, March 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Steam: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Motor Racing Network
|Position||Driver||Number||Best Speed (mph)|
|26||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||98.379|
|30||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17||98.206|
|31||Martin Truex Jr.||78||98.200|
Drivers to Watch
While it's no secret Jeff Gordon hasn't been dominant in recent years when it comes to winning races, he is always a threat to get the job done at Martinsville. Gordon has taken the No. 24 car to victory lane at Martinsville on eight occasions, including last year's October race.
That marked his first Martinsville win since 2005, but he always manages to run well there. There seems to be a lot of confidence in Gordon's ability to make it two straight triumphs at Martinsville, as Marcus DiNitto of Sporting News, via his Sporting News colleague Micah Roberts, pointed out that Gordon has 5-1 odds on Sunday:
Although Gordon hasn't won a race yet this season, he has been running extremely well and currently sits in third place in the overall standings. Gordon can't afford to rest on his laurels, though, due to the importance of winning races this season.
One win essentially guarantees a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and Sunday's Martinsville race represents one of Gordon's best opportunities.
If Gordon is the king of Martinsville, then perhaps Jimmie Johnson is the czar. The six-time Sprint Cup champion has also won at Martinsville on eight occasions, and he will look to usurp his Hendrick Motorsports teammate in order to cement a Chase spot in his own right.
Qualifying well at Martinsville is paramount, as the short track makes it much easier for top cars to lap those near the back of the field. In fact, no car with a qualifying finish of worse than 20th has won the race since Kurt Busch did it from No. 36 in 2002. With that in mind, Johnson finds himself in an ideal position at No. 4.
According to NASCAR Stats on Twitter, Johnson has been a consistently great qualifier all season long:
Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano now the only drivers to make final round in all five races featuring knockout qualifying. #NASCAR— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) March 28, 2014
At the same time, Johnson's race results have been a bit disappointing due to some bad tire luck. That has put a little extra pressure on him to win a race, but it isn't likely to throw him off his game. As long as Johnson's equipment holds up, he's guaranteed to be in the mix.
There hasn't been a great deal of variety in terms of winning drivers at Martinsville over the past decade, and while that is due largely to the dominance of Gordon and Johnson, Denny Hamlin has something to do with it as well. Hamlin has four career wins at Martinsville, including three in a row between the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Hamlin will start second, but there is some concern regarding his status. Hamlin was a late scratch in Fontana, Calif. last week due to vision issues, which stemmed from a piece of metal being found in his eye, according to Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press:
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
Hamlin's absence led to plenty of speculation regarding the circumstances surrounding his situation, but Hamlin attempted to silence critics leading up to the Martinsville race, per Jim Utter of the Charlotte Observer.
People who think negatively of me or think that we sidestepped some sort of drug test or something is ridiculous. I'm in one of the top-three cars in NASCAR; I would have to be an absolute moron – moron – to risk that.
After such a strong qualifying run, it seems as though Hamlin is back to normal. If that is the case, he will undoubtedly be a factor.
As multi-time winners at Martinsville, it is clear that Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin have targets on their backs. While having a good car at Martinsville is paramount, a big part of being successful there is experience. The aforementioned drivers have plenty of that, but they aren't alone in that regard.
Who will win the STP 500 at Martinsville?
Tony Stewart has also won at Martinsville on three occasions, and he'll start cozily in the No. 7 spot. "Smoke" has finished in the top five in consecutive weeks, and he is in position to do so again on Sunday.
Kevin Harvick is a bit of a dark horse after qualifying 18th, but he knows how to win there as well. Harvick took the checkered flag in 2011, and he has had great cars all season long. Mechanical issues have stymied him at times; however, he should have a machine capable of getting to the front.
For those looking at a semi-long shot outside the top 20 in qualifying, look no further than Kurt Busch. As previously mentioned, he is the last driver to qualify outside the top 20 and win at Martinsville. He qualified 22nd, but he should have a great deal of confidence after a third-place showing last week.
It's difficult to pick a winner based on the sheer number of realistic contenders, but due to the fact that Gordon has been running so consistently well this season, he seems due to cross the finish line first.
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