Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sprint Cup Series Notes: Martinsville STP 500

Lots of Grandfather clocks between these two

Ho-Hum: Another Top-Two For Harvick
Does the lead for NASCAR’s News & Notes ever change?

Kevin Harvick has been THE story for weeks now, posting his eighth consecutive top-two finish with a runner-up showing at Auto Club.

The No. 4 Chevrolet driver now has two wins and three second-place performances this season and leads Joey Logano by 27 points in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.

This Sunday, Harvick returns to the venue at which he last finished outside the top two – Martinsville Speedway – for the STP 500 (1 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1). (Kevin, if you’re reading, don’t watch this.) Harvick finished 33rd at “The Paperclip” in last year’s opener of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Eliminator 8 Round. His lone top-two finish at Martinsville was a victory in spring of 2011.

“Happy” continues to chase Richard Petty’s record of 11 consecutive top-two finishes set in 1975.

“Bradical” Dude: Late Race Gamble Leads Keselowski To Victory
Running fifth with two laps left in the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford team made the gutsy decision to take four fresh tires, moving Keselowski all the way back to 14th on the Lap 202 restart.

The decision paid off with a ticket to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Keselowski engulfed the field like a wave, moving up to fifth for the next restart on Lap 207 and tracking down Kurt Busch on the 209th and final lap of the race – the only go-around Keselowski led all day – to take the victory.

Keselowski, who paced the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with six wins last season, will attempt to continue his momentum by taking the checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway for the first time in his career. The 31-year-old claims one top five and five top-10 finishes in 10 starts at the .526-mile track.

Last weekend’s Auto Club race marked the second of Keselowski’s 17 career victories where he led just one lap. Ironically, the first came on Keselowski’s first career win, at Talladega Superspeedway (4/26/09). (Keselowski’s Talladega triumph entered NASCAR.com’s March Madness tribute in the “Biggest NASCAR Upset” bracket as the sixth seed. Fans can vote on NASCAR’s biggest upset here.)

The points leader entering the 2014 Chase, Keselowski ranks fifth in the standings, trailing Kevin Harvick by 62 points.

Might As Well Call Martinsville “Hendrickville”
Hendrick Motorsports’ 22 wins at Martinsville Speedway not only rank first in track history, they mark the most victories by an owner at a specific track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series annals.

The organization goes for its 23rd triumph of “The Paperclip” this weekend with five race entries: Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott.

Martinsville mavens Johnson and Gordon will lead the way. Both rank first among active drivers with eight wins at the storied short track. The pair also claims the most runner-ups at Martinsville among active drivers – Gordon with five and Johnson with four.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson boasts the top driver rating in the series at Martinsville (122.5), while Gordon’s is second-best (119.8).

There’s No Place Like Home For Hamlin
Chesterfield, Virginia native Denny Hamlin heads to his home track at Martinsville, which may be just what the doctor ordered after his tough-luck outing at Auto Club.

The No. 11 FedEx Toyota driver owns four wins at Martinsville, his most at any track (he also has four at Pocono). In addition, he boasts nine top fives and 14 top 10s at the southern Virginia track. His driver rating (110.1), fastest laps run (612) and average running position (8.8) at Martinsville are all the third-best among active drivers.

Hamlin finished 28th at Auto Club, a showing not indicative of his performance that showed off serious speed. The Joe Gibbs Racing wheelman led a season-high 56 laps, looking like he could contend for the win before he was sent to the back after Lap 185 when his team drew a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire.

If Hamlin can park his car in Victory Lane, he will tie NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly for the most wins by a driver from Virginia with 25.

High Ratings: Dale Jr. Excels At NASCAR’s Oldest Track
Four drivers average a driver rating of more than 100 at Martinsville. The top three aren’t that big a surprise, considering they also reside atop the active Martinsville wins list – Jimmie Johnson (122.5), Jeff Gordon (119.8) and Denny Hamlin (110.1). The other highly rated driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won his first Martinsville race last October in the series’ most recent visit to the Virginia short track. Earnhardt’s driver rating of 101.2 makes Martinsville his best track in terms of the loop data statistic, and the only track at which he eclipses the 100 driver rating barrier. For the record: No. 2 on his list is Michigan at 98.0. Last on his list is Sonoma, at 72.1.

Tough Task: Chase Elliott Hopes To Buck “Debut Downer” Trend
Reigning NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Chase Elliott starts his ‘Jeff Gordon Replacement’ march this Sunday at Martinsville, driving the No. 25 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. It’ll be the first of five races in 2015 before hopping in the No. 24 Chevrolet fulltime in 2016 (his other races this season are Richmond, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Darlington). And, if history is any indication, it’ll be a tough task. The last driver to score a top-10 finish in his first career start was Carl Edwards’ 10th-place finish at Michigan in 2004. Only three drivers have scored a top 10 in their debut since 1990: Edwards, Matt Kenseth (6th at Dover in 1998) and Kenny Irwin Jr. (8th at Richmond in 1997). The last driver to score a top five in his premier series debut: NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, who finished second at Atlanta in 1980. And one last note…to best his father – NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott – Chase will have to finish 32nd or better. Bill Elliott finished 33rd in his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut, at Rockingham in 1976.

Who’s The Boss: Jersey Native Martin Truex Jr. Looks To Continue Glory Days At Martinsville
Second generation NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. is proving he was born to run in 2015.

The South Jersey native who began his racing career not far from the streets of Philadelphia, is on fire after notching five straight top-10 finishes to start the season – tying his career-best streak set in 2012. He keeps on rising in the standings where he ranks third, five points behind Joey Logano and 33 behind defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick.

Despite starting outside the top 10 in three of the first five races, Truex has shown no surrender. At Auto Club Sunday, he proved if he should fall behind that he can make up his position by finishing eighth after descending to the back of the field multiple times.

Truex has high hopes for Martinsville where he can prove he’s tougher than the rest. He will attempt to pilot his No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet to the promised land at the .526-mile track where he claims two top-five and four top-10 finishes.

Kurt Busch Attempts Martinsville Repeat
After being suspended for the first three races of the season, Kurt Busch has collected a fifth and a third-place finish in his first two starts, respectively.

Busch looked like he was going to pull off the ‘perfect weekend’, leading qualifying, all practices and the race at Auto Club on Sunday, but was tracked down by Brad Keselowski on the final lap and finished third.

This weekend, Busch will attempt to defend his win in last year’s Martinsville spring race in the STP 500. Busch claims two victories at Martinsville and his victory from the 36th position there in 2002 is the deepest in the field a race winner has ever started.

Busch’s recent success coincides with his crew chief switch to Tony Gibson for the November race at Texas Motor Speedway last season. In five races with Gibson, Busch claims two top fives, four top 10s, a 6.5 average finish and an average driver rating of 111.5. His driver rating ranks second over that span, and his average running position of 6.8 ranks third.

Super Subs: Buescher, Moffitt Making Most Of Fill-In Role
Unfortunately, Brian Vickers cannot race for the foreseeable future as he recovers from health issues related to blood clots.

Brett Moffitt, who piloted Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota to an eighth-place showing at Atlanta, subbed for him at Auto Club and placed 22nd. Since Moffitt moved into the No. 55 for Michael Waltrip Racing, Chris Buescher took over for him in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford at Auto Club, finishing 20th in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut.

Moffitt and Buescher, both 22 years old, will pilot the same cars again in this weekend’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Neither driver has ever competed at Martinsville in any of NASCAR’s national series.

No. 11 Boasts Storied History at Martinsville
Denny Hamlin is a perennial contender at Martinsville, having earned four grandfather clocks in his young career. However, he is not the first driver to experience success in the No. 11 car at the 0.526-mile track.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough set the tone in the No. 11 at Martinsville, with four wins in 16 starts from 1973-80. He finished in the top five an astounding 11 times during that eight-year stretch, including three runner-up finishes. And when fellow Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip took over the Junior Johnson owned ride in 1980, the success continued. Waltrip won four Martinsville races for Johnson, including a stretch of seven consecutive top-five finishes from 1981-84.

It’s not hard to imagine Johnson’s success as a driver helped contribute to his ownership triumphs. Johnson won twice at the paperclip-shaped track and had eight finishes of third or better in 19 attempts.

Overall, the No. 11 has 15 Martinsville wins, including a sweep by Geoff Bodine in 1990. Only the No. 43 car has visited Martinsville Victory Lane more. Richard Petty, the all-time Martinsville wins leader, had 15 victories at the track. John Andretti earned a Martinsville win for Petty Enterprises in 1999.


No comments: