It’s race week in Martinsville

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: STP 500

The Place: Martinsville Speedway

The Date: Sunday, March 24

The Time: 2 p.m. ET

TV: FS1, 12:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 263 miles (500 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 130),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 260), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 500)

2018 Winner: Clint Bowyer


Team Penske power 

The championship three-car Team Penske organization already owns two wins through the opening five races of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and has quite a strong recent history at this week’s stop, Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway. Already, Brad Keselowski has a victory at Atlanta and Joey Logano at Las Vegas. Their young teammate, 25-year old Ryan Blaney, posted his best effort of the season two weeks ago – third place – at Phoenix’s ISM Raceway and answered with another top-10 on Sunday in California.

The reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Logano is ranked second in the points standings – 15 points behind two-race winner Kyle Busch – heading into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Keselowski is fifth in the standings and Blaney is 10th.

Logano, who drives the No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang, has four top 10s in five races this season – including the Vegas win and a runner-up to Busch last weekend in California. Keselowski, the 2012 series champion and driver of the famed No. 2 Team Penske Ford Mustang, has three top-three showings including his win at Atlanta, a runner-up at Las Vegas and a third-place finish last weekend in California.

Blaney, who drives the No. 12 Team Penske Ford Mustang, is coming off back-to-back top-five finishes at Phoenix and California. His recent work at Martinsville has been similar. He has two top-10 finishes in the last three races at the track, including a third place in this race last year after leading 145 laps.

Logano has been especially good at Martinsville, picking up his bid to the Championship 4 round of the Playoffs last October in a thrilling last lap victory at the half-miler – memorable for an especially aggressive run to the finish with 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr.

And overall, Logano has won three times at Martinsville and has four poles – earning three straight poles from 2015-16.  He’s finished in the top-10 in four of the last five races and led laps in four of the last five races as well. His 309 laps out front last October were the most laps led since Kyle Busch paced the field for 352 laps in March, 2016.

Keselowski also has a victory at Martinsville (Spring 2017) and boasts a current string of six consecutive top 10s – five top-fives – in the last six races there. He’s led 266 laps at the track in just the last four races.

Busch goes for national series win No. 201

With the 200th NASCAR national series combined victory now checked off the milestone list, Sunday’s Auto Club Speedway winner Kyle Busch shows no obvious signs of slowing down in his quest to add to that big number. The 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion already has two Cup wins, two Xfinity Series wins and two Gander Outdoors Truck Series victories through 11 total starts among all three national series this season.

In all, Busch, who drives the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has finished top-three in four of the five Monster Energy Series races. He is the only driver in the series to have top-10 finishes in every race and his combined 361 laps out front tops all competitors as well.

Martinsville could well be the venue to put him past the historic 200 national series win mark. He has two previous Cup victories at the track – both coming in the last three years. He has two wins, two runner-up showings and led 937 laps (66 percent of his career total at Martinsville) in the last seven races held at the track.

His 352 laps led in the 2016 race at Martinsville is the most laps led by anyone in the past 10 races there.

Busch’s most recent victories in the last two weeks of the season have been not only historic, but strong statements about his and his team’s competitiveness. He beat Logano by 2.35-seconds for the win in California last weekend and he beat his new teammate Martin Truex Jr. by a 1.2-seconds for the win at Phoenix two weeks ago.

He justifiably feels optimistic about this week’s short track challenge too.

“We’ve run well there, the last two years especially at Martinsville and we’re definitely pumped about getting back there,’’ Busch said. “I’m hoping we can have a really good car there again this time around, like we did the last several years.

Bowyer returns to defend his win

The defending winner of Sunday’s STP 500, Clint Bowyer, could use a dose of that positive vibe again this weekend. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has vacillated between great promise and disappointment in 2019. He has three top-15 finishes and two DNFs through the season’s opening five races. His best effort is a fifth at Atlanta four weeks ago. He suffered one of his DNFs this past Sunday in California when his No. 14 Ford had an overheating issue.

Last year’s Martinsville showing gives him reason to be optimistic this week. He led a race-high 215 laps en route to a solid 1.14-second win over Kyle Busch – Bowyer’s first victory since joining the SHR team in 2017. The win was especially satisfying considering how competitive the race was – three drivers (also Ryan Blaney, 145 laps and Denny Hamlin, 111 laps) led at least 100 laps on the afternoon.

Bowyer has 15 top-10 finishes in 26 starts at the track, including three in the last four years. 

Jimmie Johnson has set the bar high

As is the case at so many NASCAR tracks, seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and 83-race winner Jimmie Johnson holds the distinction for winning the most races (nine) at Martinsville Speedway among active drivers.

And history shows that once he gets on a hot streak at the historic half-miler, he has plenty of reason to celebrate thereafter. Johnson won three straight races here in the 2006-07 seasons and twice won back-to-back races (2008-09 and 2012-13).  He won five out of six races between 2006-09 with Denny Hamlin winning the one race (Spring, 2008) he did not hoist a trophy in that time.

Johnson has 19 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 34 starts and he’s led at least 100 laps in 13 different Martinsville races. He’s led 200 laps four times and twice led at least 300 laps – in 2008 he led 339 laps and in 2013 he led 346 laps (both times from the pole position).

Johnson’s 2,862 total laps led at Martinsville is most in the field this weekend – 1,000 laps more than Hamlin’s second-most laps led at 1,536. If Johnson were to lead 138 laps or more at Martinsville Speedway this weekend, he would become just the fifth driver in series history to lead 3,000 or more laps at multiple tracks; joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarbrough (five tracks with 3,000 or more laps led), Richard Petty (four tracks), Rusty Wallace (three tracks) and Darrell Waltrip (two tracks).

Below are the seven drivers in series history to lead 3,000 or more laps at a single track:

Driver Tracks With 3,000 Or More Laps Led
Cale Yarborough Bristol (4,305), Martinsville (3,851), Rockingham (3,732), Nashville Fgds (3,632), Atlanta (3,283)
Richard Petty North Wilkesboro (5,308), Richmond (5,136), Nashville Fgds (3,957), Rockingham (3,130)
Rusty Wallace Bristol (3,743), Martinsville (3,632), Richmond (3,024)
Darrell Waltrip Martinsville (3,617), Bristol (3,436)
Jeff Gordon Martinsville (3,779)
Dale Earnhardt Bristol (3,751)
Jimmie Johnson Dover (3,105)

In comparison to the high standard Johnson has set, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 has struggled some at the track in recent years – leading laps in only two of the last nine races and scoring only two top-10s during that time; albeit one of those was the 2016 victory en route to his record-tying seventh title.

If Johnson were to win this weekend at Martinsville, he would become just the third driver in series history to record 10 or more wins at more than one track; joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. Johnson currently has nine series wins at Martinsville.

Below is a list of the five drivers with 10 or more wins at a single track in the Monster Energy Series:

Driver Tracks With 10 Or More Wins
Richard Petty Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11), Daytona (10)
Darrell Waltrip Bristol (12), Martinsville (10), North Wilkesboro (10)
Jimmie Johnson Dover (11)
David Pearson Darlington (10)
Dale Earnhardt Talladega (10)

This year Johnson is 14th in the championship standings – looking to end a winless streak that dates back to the summer of 2017. He’s scored a pair of top-10 finishes in 2019 (at Daytona and at Phoenix) and his 14th place in the rankings is the highest he’s been since seventh place following the season-opening Daytona 500. 

Hamlin welcomes the short tracks

Martinsville Speedway has certainly been among this year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin’s “go-to” venues. His five wins – including three-straight from 2009-2010 seasons – are eclipsed by only nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson among active drivers.

Last year Hamlin certainly made a strong go at victory in this race, leading 111 laps but finishing 12th.

In 26 starts at his home state of Virginia’s half-miler, he has 19 top-10 finishes and 13 top-fives and an impressive 9.8 average finish. He’s led laps in 17 of the last 19 Martinsville races – highlighted by a performance in 2009 unequalled in recent history. That season he led 502 laps in the two races – 296 laps in this spring race and 206 laps in the fall. He’s led 1,536 laps total – second to Johnson’s 2,862 laps led.

Outside of winning the sport’s most celebrated race, the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin’s impressive work has been largely low profile. He has four top-10s through five races and the fifth finish was 11th at Atlanta. He’s led laps in three of the five races and is ranked fourth in the championship standings, 32-points behind his teammate Kyle Busch.

Interestingly, for all the success he’s enjoyed at Martinsville, Hamlin insisted he doesn’t prepare any differently or feel any extra emotions at the venue where he has been so good.

“I treat every race the same and I know our team is always working hard to give the FedEx Toyota the best chance to take the checkered flag,’’ Hamlin said “I’m proud of my accomplishments at Martinsville, but every race is different and we need to be fully focused and be at our best if we are going to have a shot at winning this weekend.’’

Tough and Tumble: Truex is ready for Martinsville

There will likely be two drivers, in particular, eyeing one another – and being eyed by everyone else – following a dramatic last lap dust-up in the 2018 Playoff race at Martinsville Speedway.

Eventual Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano and 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr. battled door-to-door coming to the finish line with some aggressive beating-and-banging that resulted in Logano earning the victory. 

Truex has top-five finishes in the last three Martinsville races and has won the pole position twice at the venue. Right now, his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team has finished top-10 in the last four races of the 2019 season.

Not only does Truex have a strong record at Martinsville, he smiles and reminds he has a good memory about racing the track, too – for the good and the bad. He had worked his way all the up through the field from a 33rd-place starting position and led 18 laps before getting passed by Logano on the last lap in November.

“We’ve certainly got some unfinished business going into Martinsville this weekend,’’ Truex said. “It’s a place that wasn’t one of my favorites early in my career, but the last few years, I feel like I’ve really started to get a handle on it.”

“A lot of that can be attributed to having a really good crew chief and driving fast cars. It would mean a lot to win there especially after how the last race there ended up. I’m confident that we’ll have a fast SiriusXM Toyota Camry this weekend and be right there to have a shot at the end of the race.” 

Harvick still looking for first win of the season

By the time Kevin Harvick arrived in Virginia for the 2018 season’s first short track race at Martinsville Speedway, he had already won three times. This season, he’s still looking for his first victory of 2019, but his fifth-place finish at Martinsville last March sparked a seven-race string of finishing seventh or better – including back-to-back victories at Dover and Kansas.

His last – and only – Cup victory at Martinsville came in 2011, although he has won in the Xfinity Series (2006) and three times in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (2009, 2010, 2012) at the track.

Harvick’s 2019 has certainly been encouraging, if not trophy-hoisting. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has finished in fourth place three times in the opening five races and won the Busch Pole position at Las Vegas. He is currently third in the Monster Energy Series points standings – 24 points behind standings leader Kyle Busch.

“Some guys just have a knack for Martinsville,’’ Harvick said. “There are some weekends when I show up and I feel good about where I’m at and some weekends I just feel like I’ve never been there before. You look at this little bitty racetrack and you think it would be so simple, and you go out there and it becomes so hard.

Martinsville Speedway streaks

For as challenging as Martinsville Speedway’s iconic paper-clip half-miler has been in the course of NASCAR history, it has produced a trend – particularly in the early years of its existence. Once a driver figured out the track, he really had success.

Seven drivers have won at least three consecutive races at Martinsville. And Fred Lorenzen holds the record for winning four straight from 1963-64.

Richard Petty – the track’s all-time winningest driver (15 victories) – won three straight from 1968-69. Cale Yarborough matched the three-race streak in 1976-77, 11-time Martinsville winner Darrell Waltrip did so in 1988-89, Rusty Wallace in 1994-95, Jimmie Johnson in 2006-07 and Denny Hamlin in 2009-10.

Johnson and Hamlin are the only two active drivers to have pulled off the impressive feat of streaks and they are also the only two drivers on this impressive list of superiority not to already be (yet) in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Sunoco Rookie watch 2019

A 23rd-place effort by JTG Daugherty Racing driver Ryan Preece last weekend at Auto Club Speedway was good enough to put the 28-year old back on top of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. In addition, he moved up three spots in the series driver points standings but is still looking for his first top-20 finish since an eighth-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500. This will be his first start at Martinsville in any of NASCAR’s three top series.

Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric, 28, dropped back into second position in the rookie standings following a 33rd-place finish in California last weekend. He is still looking for his first top 20 of 2019 in the Monster Energy Series. He does have a previous top-10 effort at Martinsville – a ninth-place finish in the 2016 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race there.

Front Row Motorsport’s Matt Tifft, 22, arrives at Martinsville feeling optimistic about his chances at the challenging venue and after posting his best two Cup finishes to date – a season-best 20th at ISM Raceway answered with a 26th-place run at Auto Club Speedway last weekend. Tifft scored back-to-back top-10 finishes at Martinsville in the Truck Series – finishing eighth and ninth in the two truck races there in 2015.

Rick Ware Racing’s Cody Ware, 23, was 32nd at Auto Club Speedway. His only previous start at Martinsville was a 27th-place finish in the Truck Series in 2015.