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Martinsville: Danica Patrick's opportunity to show progress


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, NASCAR’s officiating errors, the return of the Truck Series, Danica’s progress, Hendrick’s dominance and Matt Kenseth’s Martinsville improvement highlight the major topics leading us into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

1. Will Martinsville end consecutive weeks of NASCAR officiating issues?
An old theory says bad things happen in threes. NASCAR’s competition department would be fine if that theory proved to be bunk this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

For two consecutive weeks, drivers in the Sprint Cup Series have been affected by officiating blunders relating to the technology in use at the track. First it was Bristol when an official working in the flag stand was said to have bumped a switch that activated the track’s caution light system. The error came with two laps left and nearly set up a dramatic but unnecessary green-white-checker finish. A rain storm soon pelted the track, however, ending the race and dampening the controversy before it could flare further.

Then last week in California, NASCAR’s official working at the front entrance of pit road allegedly had a piece of uniform get stuck in the track’s fencing while reaching for the light switch that signals the opening of pit road. The official managed to still wave the traditional green flag, but at least three drivers — Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon — altered pit strategy because they felt pit road was still closed.

While the issues are hardly a trend of significant concern for the sanctioning body, they do need to get fixed. Both incidents are entirely preventable through improved processes. NASCAR is lucky that they ultimately played limited roles in the outcome of both races.

Hopefully Martinsville — and the rest of the season that is set to have so many moments that could hinge so drastically on officiating aptitude — can go without a hitch.

2. Welcoming the Truck Series back to the limelight
Remember the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series?

It’s been five weeks since NASCAR’s third-tier national series opened the 2014 campaign with the 250-miler at Daytona International Speedway. Thirty-six days after that green flag — let the record show it was on Friday, Feb. 21 — the trucks will start just their second race of 2014 Saturday at Martinsville.

But don’t get too comfortable with the tailgates. They won’t race again after Saturday until May 9 at Kansas Speedway. From there, the 22-race schedule gets more regular and runs through Homestead in November.

Most stories about the return of the trucks at Martinsville will likely center around Darrell Wallace Jr.’ s return to defend his win last fall. With the victory, Wallace became the first black driver to win a NASCAR national series race since Wendell Scott won a Cup series race in 1963.

The 20-year-old returned to the seat of the No. 54 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports this season.

3. Patrick has opportunity to show progress  
Putting the words “progress” and “Danica Patrick” near each other is, for now, a risky proposition.

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That’s not just because Patrick has become a polarizing figure in the sport. She has also been the epitome of inconsistency during her first few seasons at NASCAR’s top level. Nowhere is that more evident than in this simple fact: Patrick has finished inside the top 20 for two straight races (18th at Bristol, 14th at Fontana) for just the second time in 54 races.

It’s not amazing or jaw-dropping. It’s not yet an opinion-shifter.

But Patrick’s biggest problem to date in NASCAR has been an inability to put together consistent races — both lap-to-lap and race-to-race. She heads to Martinsville riding at least a small wave of positivity and with the confidence that she can perform at one of NASCAR’s tougher venues. Last year, Patrick turned in finishes of 12th and 17th at the short track.

A top 20 at Martinsville is a fair expectation at this point. Earning it would be a good sign amongst an otherwise questionable beginning.

3. A dominant 30 years at Martinsville for Hendrick
For some veterans of the NASCAR garage, it’s probably pretty hard to believe that Rick Hendrick has owned teams in the sport for 30 years. For others, his ownership and recent dominance has probably felt more like 300 years.

Regardless, Sunday marks an important milestone for the best NASCAR owner of the last two decades and his ever-growing team. Hendrick scored his first win as a Cup car owner 30 years ago at Martinsville with Geoff Bodine. With Harry Hyde has crew chief, Bodine drove to an improbable victory in Hendrick’s All-Star Racing No. 5 car on April 29, 1984, in the team’s eighth race of existence.

Since then, many of Hendrick’s drivers have seen Martinsville as a personal playground. Hendrick-owned teams have won 21 of the 60 races at the .526-mile oval and scored 110 total top 10s. With Jeff Gordon (October 2013) and Jimmie Johnson (April 2013, October 2012) holding court on the field in the last three races at the track, the tougher decision this weekend may be finding out who can beat HMS.

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4. Matt Kenseth: Martinsville Ace?  
Matt Kenseth has a list of six current tracks on the Cup schedule where he has never won. Martinsville Speedway is one of them — and also the one where he’s traditionally struggled the most. He’s failed to finish on the lead lap nine times in 28 attempts at the short track.

The tide, however, seems to be shifting.

Thanks to his move last season to Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has drastically improved at Martinsville. He notched a runner-up finish last fall and led a total of 298 laps in both races last season — quite the gain when you consider he had led just 73 laps there in 26 previous starts.

It’s a product largely of JGR having an extremely solid setup package at the Virginia track. The setup is largely refined from Denny Hamlin’s success when from 2008 to 2010, Hamlin scored four Martinsville wins in six attempts.

Kenseth nearly unseated the Hendrick reign last fall. He might just be the guy to do it Sunday.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.