Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions in Martinsville: Reckless Rookies and Hendrick Stalwarts

Oh what do you know, wet weather has plagued the NASCAR world yet again. Rain has seemingly been the theme of the 2014 NASCAR season, and that theme continued yesterday as the Truck Series event at Martinsville was postponed until today. The good news of course is that today’s Cup Series event ought to go off without a hitch, and as such we have a number of stories to track. Undoubtedly the biggest story heading into today is the sheer lack of track time that the drivers’ have had this weekend. When drivers lack track time at a given race track, crazy and exciting things tend to happen. And of course, you compound that with the fact that Martinsville is arguably the most contact-happy track on the circuit, and you have a recipe for a day of excitement. Stay tuned…

1. How will the driver’s lack of track time affect the race today?

Rain tends to have a funny way of creating excitement, sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect. Twice this season, the threat of rain has put drivers on edge throughout the race and created an urgency unseen in typical dry-weather events. This week, rain looks to once again play a role in the race, but it will do so in a bit of a retroactive manner.

As most of you probably know by now, both Saturday practices were washed out. That means the only bit of track time the drivers have had this week was on Friday for opening practice and qualifying. Most teams were in qualifying mode for that first practice, and as such, virtually no one has thoroughly tested out their race setups. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

When you put 43 drivers onto a 0.5 mile paperclip track like Martinsville with essentially no practice time, bad things tend to happen. Last fall’s Martinsville event was an utter wreckfest with seventeen cautions, and the drivers had plenty of practice time that day. Don’t be shocked to see a similar display in this event, as drivers struggle to adjust to their relatively untested race setups.

On the bright side, the lack of practice time ought to foster the old “comers and goers effect” as teams take big swings at their setups during pit stops to make up for lost practice time. Overall, it should all make for an unpredictable race.

2. Speaking of lack of practice…will the rookies create fireworks?

There are eight rookies starting today’s race. Let that sink in for a second, eight rookies are running their first Martinsville race as a full-time Sprint Cup driver. As much as this year’s crop of rookies has impressed thus far, not a single one of them has experienced anything quite like a Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Not even the rough and tumble high banks of Bristol or the close quarters pack racing of Daytona can quite prepare a rookie for what is in store today.

Will a rookie, such as Justin Allgaier, ruffle feathers in their first run at Martinsville?

So what does this all mean? It means you can expect to see the rookies make their lion’s share of mistakes and probably draw the ire of some veterans today. I’d bet any sum of money on it: at least one of the rookies will rustle another driver’s jimmies today. Anyone remember Tony Stewart’s “dart without feathers” rant back in ’06 when David Ragan ran Martinsville for the first time? That’s the sort of thing that I’m sure is on the minds of veteran drivers today.

Now, I’m not saying all of the rookies are going to turn into David Ragan in ‘06 today, but I think it would be wise to keep an eye on them nonetheless. As ‘ol DW always says, yellow stripes create excitement, and there’s no track in which that statement rings more true than at Martinsville.

3. Will the high line come into play at all today?

Martinsville is one of the few tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit that simply hasn’t changed much over the years. The flat, paperclip shape of the track more or less precludes the drivers from running anything other than the bottom line in the corners, essentially making it a single-groove race track. The lack of options through the corners is the factor most responsible for creating all of the contact at Martinsville, as every driver is essentially fighting for the same real estate.

Now of course, the fact that Martinsville is a single-groove track does not necessarily prevent the second-groove from being totally useless in the race. As many crew chiefs will be happy to point out, the second-groove can occasionally be exploited late in races at Martinsville if a sufficient amount of rubber has been built up throughout the race. This especially rings true in late-race restart situations in which a driver in the top groove can pin the bottom lane car down just long enough to pull ahead by a nose at the start-finish line. Tony Stewart worked this to perfection back in the fall 2011 Martinsville event, and such execution of the top line would not be inconceivable today.

As such, keep an eye on drivers who flirt with the second groove late in the race. That groove could end up making or breaking a driver’s day.

4. Are there any favorites heading into the race in spite of the lack of practice?

One of the good things about Martinsville is that even on weekends when the drivers lack practice time, it’s still easy to predict a favorite simply because of the sheer difficulty of the race track. Martinsville is the ultimate “driver’s track” – no amount of engineering or aerodynamic tricks are going to beat out a driver who simply knows how to wheel it at Martinsville.

And of course, we all know what drivers tend to fit the description placed in the above sentence. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are the kings of Martinsville, and you can almost be certain that one of those two drivers will factor into the finish of the race today. Gordon and Johnson have combined to lead an utterly absurd 1272 laps in the past four races while taking victories in 3 of those 4 events. Not exactly hard to see why these two are your favorites for today.

As for which one is the better pick, I’d go with Johnson. Johnson has been just a tick better at Martinsville in recent years and I think that trend will continue today.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 STP 500:
1. 48-Jimmie Johnson
2. 24-Jeff Gordon
3. 15-Clint Bowyer
4. 18-Kyle Busch
5. 11-Denny Hamlin
6. 2-Brad Keselowski
7. 31-Ryan Newman
8. 22-Joey Logano
9. 41-Kurt Busch
10. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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