After a week off, NASCAR makes its return at one of the most anticipated races on the schedule each year. Martinsville Speedway may be the smallest-sized oval in the Cup Series but its low speeds often bring high-octane energy as the sport’s short track portion of the season gets underway. It’s also an opportunity for some underdog organizations to shine and potentially steal a win that would sneak them inside NASCAR’s 16-team playoff that begins in September.
Last time we were here, Jeff Gordon produced his final career victory that led to a sendoff worthy of a future Hall of Famer. That type of fairy tale ending will be hard to top. But another photo finish, sparks flying and contact worthy of your local bumper cars at the carnival? That’s highly likely in a 2016 season marked so far by close finishes.
2016 STP 500
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Hendrick vs. Gibbs
A look back at the sport’s first five races shows some familiar faces leading the way during a year of parity otherwise within the sport. The top eight spots in the point standings thus far are occupied by drivers who run either Hendrick Motorsports chassis (Chevrolet) or the top Toyota chassis molded by Joe Gibbs Racing. The list on the Chevrolet side includes six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, winner of two of the first five events; 2014 champion and current laps led leader Kevin Harvick; and NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Defending champ Kyle Busch leads the charge for JGR but all three of his teammates also are included in the mix.
Last season, we saw Hendrick jump out and dominate the early part of the schedule only for JGR to close the gap late and run away with the series title. A new rules package in 2016 shows both of them evenly matched at this point in the year.
Who’s at the Back: Greg Biffle
Now the sport’s oldest full-time driver at age 46 Mr. Biffle is looking, well, old. Despite a season where his two teammates at Roush Fenway Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne appear to be benefitting from better equipment we have yet to see that momentum carry over to the No. 16. Biffle has the sport’s lone mechanical DNF from a major team, suffering engine failure at Fontana, and has looked rather pedestrian in the sport’s other four events. Sitting 27th in points, he has yet to score a top-10 finish and his future is becoming an open question with sponsorship concerns and the driver entering the last year of his contract.
Hendrick Motorsports was listed by Forbes as the richest team in the sport during its 2016 Financial Profile of NASCAR released this week. They’ve jumped from $350 million to $375 million in value, a promising sign considering the four-car organization had no cars in the Chase final four last season and the sport is suffering through ratings decline. Maybe the charter agreements have stabilized the sport for the long term? Forbes estimated the value of those “charters” to be $15-$17 million per team even though one is being leased out right now (to the No. 46 of HScott Motorsports) for a reported $1.6 million.
Chip Ganassi Racing is suffering this week after losing the car chief for their XFINITY program, Chris Shea. Shea died in his sleep at age 34; no cause of death has been announced.
Derek White has been arrested as part of the biggest Canadian tobacco smuggling program in history. The 45-year-old XFINITY driver/owner faces seven total counts of fraud, conspiracy and profiteering after smuggling a reported 2,294 tons of tobacco into Canada from North Carolina (which was then used for cocaine). The future of White’s XFINITY program is unknown.
Celebrity Sighting: Can Melissa Joan Hart get all her friends excited about how to turn left? The former child star of Clarissa Explains It All on Nickelodeon will be Sunday’s honorary pace car driver for the STP 500.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes so far this season for Aric Almirola along with laps led. But due to consistency (an average finish of 17.0) he is currently 13th in points and will be a contender to make the Chase for the second time in three years with his middle-tier Richard Petty Motorsports program.
Driver to have finished inside the top 10 during all five races this season: Kevin Harvick. No wonder why he leads the regular season standings by 11 points over Jimmie Johnson.
Rookies tied for the final spot in the Chase: Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott. It’s still early, but NASCAR hasn’t had a rookie make the postseason since Denny Hamlin did so back in 2006.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I know it’s tiring to keep mentioning Jimmie Johnson. But Martinsville, like a few other tracks on the schedule always becomes a “must start” situation for him. He has eight career wins there, including five out of six between 2006-09 and has racked up 22 career top-10 finishes. A recent stretch of bad luck there (32nd, 35th, and 12th in his last three starts) also suggests Johnson is due.
Denny Hamlin, this year’s Daytona 500 winner is also Martinsville’s defending champion. Hamlin has run third two races in a row, comes into Sunday with momentum and focused on this race as one of his hometown tracks (he grew up in Chesterfield, Va.) You can always expect the No. 11 to contend here.
While you might not always see it on the stats sheet has been a quiet contender at Martinsville. He has four top-10 finishes in his last six starts there, including a pole and nearly foiled Gordon’s fairy tale victory last fall. Leading 84 laps in the fall 2014 race at Martinsville, McMurray has shown an ability to get up front here. It’s whether he has the aggression to knock potential enemies out of the way.
Danica Patrick is off to a horrible start this season and is in desperate need of a good finish before slipping too far out of Chase contention. She could get it this Sunday at Martinsville which has been a rare track where she’s earned a top-10 finish. Seventh last spring, she was 12th in her 2013 debut here and has always taken to the paperclip oval for whatever reason.
AJ Allmendinger has had moderate success here, second a couple of years ago with Penske Racing and used pit strategy to lead late in the race here last fall. The No. 47 JTG Daugherty team is worth a flyer if you’re in a pinch.
What Vegas Thinks
As of Friday morning Vegas was heavily favoring Jimmie Johnson to start the season 3-for-6. He’s got 4-1 odds which best top rival Kevin Harvick, who’s listed at 6-1. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, respectively are next in line at 7-1.
What I Think
Johnson clearly has momentum but in this year of close finishes so far in 2016 we’ve been waiting for a surprise to emerge up front. I think that happens Sunday as Jamie McMurray comes out of nowhere and finally earns his first career victory at a short track during a wreck-filled, energizing Sunday afternoon for the sport.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)