As I mentioned earlier this week, the races here at Martinsville Speedway are typically pretty predictable, and thus easier to handicap. This weekend’s STP 500 is no exception. When you compare my final rankings below to my Pre-Practice Top 20 rankings (linked above), 13 of the top 14 drivers I had going into the weekend remained there–although (obviously) switched positions a bit. Joey Logano won the pole on Friday (full starting lineup here) and then there were two practices on Saturday: Practice #2 — Happy Hour. Don’t forget to check out our notes on each session, too: Practice #2 — Happy Hour.
Final Top 15 Ranking For The STP 500:
Since this is his last full season in Sprint Cup action, Jeff Gordon will win at least one of the races here at Martinsville Speedway. It’s only fitting, and that’s just how things happen with NASCAR. Whenever we stop at this race track, Jeff Gordon is ranked in the top 5 heading into the race–he’s just that good here. I don’t care that this #24 team hasn’t scored a top 5 finish in this 2015 season yet; there’s a large amount of driver talent that goes into the races at Martinsville and Jeff Gordon is at the top of the charts. He’ll roll off the grid in 4th when the green flag waves on Sunday and I fully expect Gordon to challenge for the win. He had the best ten-lap average in that cold morning practice session on Saturday and followed that up with the 4th-best average in Happy Hour. With 8 career wins at this race track, it’s very difficult to advice picking against Jeff Gordon when we come here, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it this week. Gordon has finished 3rd or better here at Martinsville in three of the last four races. Expect this #24 team to get their first top 5 of the season on Sunday, if not something better.
Hendrick Motorsports is very good here, and that’s probably putting it lightly. Along with Jeff Gordon’s 8 career wins at this race track, Jimmie Johnson also adds 8 trips to victory lane for this stable. And when those two aren’t out there taking home the checkered flag, their teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. picks up the slack, as evidenced with his victory here last fall. Right now, these three are the most “sure” fantasy picks you can have at Martinsville Speedway, even above red-hot Kevin Harvick. Johnson will start 5th in Sunday’s STP 500 and should be a top 5 race car all day long, as usual. He was right there with Gordon in terms of ten-lap average during Practice #2 but fell down to 10th-best on that chart in Happy Hour. That doesn’t concern me at all, though, because the #48 Chevrolet is still a great race car. Over the last five events here, Johnson has four top 5 finishes and has led 958 cumulative laps. He will be a top 5 threat for sure on Sunday with a good shot at the win, too.
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Martinsville Speedway has probably been the best track on the circuit for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He always has really good speed here at “The Paperclip” and finally broke through last season with a win in the fall race. He was very impressive in this event last year, too, finishing 3rd. Looking at the 2015 season thus far, the #88 team has one blunder (43rd at Phoenix) but has finished 6th or better in all four of the other events. New crew chief Greg Ives and driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have really hit things off and I’m starting to expect multiple wins out of them this season. Will the first come on Sunday? Possibly, but I’m thinking a solid top 5 is more likely. Junior will roll off the grid in 14th for the STP 500 but I’m not overly concerned about it because you are able to pass at Martinsville as long as you have a good race car. The #88 Chevrolet was 11th in ten-lap average during Happy Hour and ranked 7th on that chart in 2nd Practice. Junior tweeted that they don’t have great speed initially but they’re right there with everyone else after 8-10 laps. He said something very similar last weekend. If this year’s STP 500 ends on a long green flag run, I think we could see Junior in victory lane once again. If there’s another green-white-checkered on Sunday, I think that may hurt him. He definitely has a top 5 car either way, though. By the way, Earnhardt has finished 8th or better in 7 of the last 9 Martinsville races.
It was very hard for me to rank Joey Logano this high, but track position just means so much at a place like Martinsville. Also, he finished 4th and 5th in the two races here last season. The only real concern I have with Logano right now is that this team has suddenly not been able to adjust on the car during the race and keep up with the track. This is the reason that Joey hasn’t finished better than 7th over the last three Sprint Cup events. Now obviously Logano is still a solid fantasy pick week in and week out (he’s posted top 10s in every race this season) but we’ve come to expect solid top 5s out of this kid and it’s not happening right now. I’m a little optimistic that that will change on Sunday, though. As mentioned before, Joey won the pole on Friday and then backed that up with a pretty mediocre (that’s putting it nicely) practice session on Saturday morning. There was a reason for the lack of speed, though: the #22 team focused on short runs that session. In Happy Hour, Logano bounced back to 7th-fastest on the overall speed chart and was 6th in ten-lap average. In fantasy, it’s hard not to run the pole sitter here at Martinsville. I’m expecting Joey to lead about 75 laps on Sunday and come home with a solid top 5 finish.
Kevin Harvick is probably the best pick for games like NASCAR.com Fantasy Live and FOX Fantasy Auto because he starts mid-pack and should have a top 5 car. Do I think the top 2 streak ends for Harvick this weekend? Yes. Would it surprise me at all if it continues? No. Martinsville Speedway is not a great track for “Happy” and I’m sure even he will admit that. Yes, he has one victory here (back in 2011) but he only led 6 laps in that race so it’s not like it was a dominating performance. In the last three events here at “The Paperclip,” Harvick has two top 10 finishes (7th in this race last year) but led a single lap and his driver rating in all three races topped out at 98.9. Now, let’s talk about momentum. Nobody has more momentum than Kevin Harvick does right now, but that only goes so far at a place like Martinsville. I fully expect the #4 team to be challenging for a top 5 finish on Sunday but I honestly think–at least going into the STP 500–that that is the ceiling for them. Harvick was 7th in ten-lap average during Happy Hour after ranking 5th on that chart in the Saturday morning session. Honestly, in some fantasy leagues this might be the week to take a break from Harvick, but then again he could come out and win on Sunday, too.
I was probably one of the first people to say that Ryan Newman’s almost-championship win last season was a total fluke. And, right now, Ryan Newman is doing everything he can to prove that it wasn’t. Don’t look now but Ryan Newman is on a 4-race streak of top 10 finishes, the last three of which were also top 5s. Although that might not seem overly impressive because of what Kevin Harvick has been doing on the race track, keep in mind that Newman had a grand total of FIVE top 5s throughout the entire 2014 season–the same one that he almost walked away with the Sprint Cup championship. This #31 team has hit on something lately and are rewarding fantasy owners handsomely. So, the question now becomes why Ryan Newman isn’t getting picked very often, and the answer is simple: he’s overpriced in most leagues. This is especially true in salary cap leagues and when it comes to allocation leagues (such as Yahoo!) Newman is grouped right along there with the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. However, if you are thinking about putting “The Rocketman” on any of your fantasy rosters this weekend, he’s probably going to be a good pick. Newman qualified 2nd of this year’s STP 500 and had pretty good speed in Happy Hour on Saturday, posting the 9th-best ten-lap average. I think the #31 Chevrolet could come home inside the top 5 once again on Sunday but I like the above five drivers just a tiny bit more. Remember, Newman ran 3rd here at Martinsville last fall.
I was really high on Matt Kenseth coming into this weekend. I actually had him as one of my top 3 fantasy favorites for Martinsville in my article over at Fantasy Racing Online–and for good reason: Matt is on a three-race streak of top 6 finishes at “The Paperclip” and he has a pit crew that is unbelievably fast, as we saw with the 10-second pit stop at Fontana last weekend. The latter is one of the best things you can have at a track like Martinsville, especially if the car is lacking a little bit of speed. A race can literally be won or lost on pit road at this track. On Friday Kenseth went out and qualified 8th for this year’s STP 500, so the #20 Toyota should at least be a solid top 10 car. Matt was 9th on the ten-lap average chart in Practice #2 on Saturday morning and ranked 8th on that chart in Happy Hour. We’ve had two disappointing fantasy results in a row out of this guy now but I’m optimistic that Kenseth will get back to his true self here at Martinsville on Sunday. A top 5 is within reach for this #20 team this weekend.
There’s a couple of ways you can look at Kurt Busch from a fantasy perspective this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. First, since getting his suspension lifted, there’s probably only one or two drivers that have been faster than Kurt on the track. As you probably remember last weekend, NASCAR screwed Busch out of the win at Fontana (read my opinions on that debacle here) but he still came home with a solid 3rd-place finish. Also, the #41 Chevrolet really found some speed on Saturday after a disappointing 26th-place qualifying effort on Friday. Busch had the 6th-best ten-lap average in Practice #2 and followed that up with the fastest lap in Happy Hour and the 2nd-fastest ten-lap average. So there’s definitely some speed in this car. You could also look at it this way: Kurt Busch hates Martinsville Speedway. Yeah, he won this event one year ago, but that’s his only top 10 finish at this track over the last 9 years…which equals 18 races. Honestly, you could flip a coin on Kurt this weekend, which is why I have him in a middle-of-the-road ranking heading into the STP 500. I do think he has the potential to surprise a lot of people from that 26th-place starting spot, though…
Once again, it looks to be just a better-than-average weekend for the #2 crew. Not great, but bad, just better-than-average. It was the same exact situation last weekend at Fontana, though, and we all know how that played out: with Keselowski in victory lane. If this weekend’s race at Martinsville doesn’t have any crazy happenings, BK will be a solid top 10 fantasy pick at best–just like he was at Fontana. If things start going screwy, though, that opens the door for Keselowski to steal another win. The Blue Deuce will roll off the grid in 12th on Sunday and that’s right right about where Brad was on the speed chart in Saturday’s Happy Hour as well: 15th in overall speed and 12th in ten-lap average. Looking at this history here at Martinsville, Brad Keselowski had a really rough 2014 at “The Paperclip,” finishing 38th and 31st, but before that he had a four-race streak of top 10s at this track, including his career-best finish of 4th here in the 2013 fall race.
Denny Hamlin should probably be ranked higher than 10th this weekend but there are a variety of factors that have gone into this ranking. First, I don’t trust Hamlin right now; the #11 Toyota has been very hit or miss this year in fantasy, with top 5 finishes at Las Vegas and Daytona and no result better than 23rd at the other three events ran thus far. Also, Denny will roll off the grid in 15th on Sunday. I said earlier that you can pass at this track as long as you have a good car (which Hamlin does) but it still puts a little doubt in a fantasy racer’s mind when their driver doesn’t start up front. The #11 Toyota was pretty good in the morning practice session on Saturday–ranking 10th in ten-lap average–and then Hamlin and the team went out and had a great Happy Hour, posting the 4th-best overall lap and ending up 3rd on the ten-lap average chart (above guys like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson). Denny Hamlin used to be a great fantasy pick here at Martinsville (from 2008 to 2010 he had six straight top 5s, four of which were wins) but he hasn’t posted a top 5 result at this track since the 2011 season. I don’t think that changes on Sunday and I’m not sure I’m willing to roster the #11 this weekend because of the higher-than-normal risk associated with Hamlin right now.
It’d just be fitting that the race at Martinsville is the one where Carl Edwards gets his first top 10 with Joe Gibbs Racing, wouldn’t it? This guy has been a fantasy thorn in our side for the entire 2015 season thus far, but I’m just waiting on this team to break through…because when it does, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Carl go on a run and win a couple races in the process. Do I think he has the speed to do that here on Sunday? No, but he sure surprised some people in Happy Hour on Saturday afternoon when the #19 Toyota ended up atop the ten-lap average chart. Historically, Martinsville has been a mediocre race track for Edwards (15.9 career average finish) but weird things happen in NASCAR so I’m not going to be surprised if he finishes inside the top 5 on Sunday–not that I think that will happen, I just wouldn’t be surprised. Carl hasn’t posted a top 10 finish at Martinsville since 2011 but that could change on Sunday. At worst he’s a top 15 fantasy pick, which isn’t terrible but I still wouldn’t recommend starting Edwards until this team shows they can put together a whole race.
Run them while they’re hot, right? I should probably practice what I preach. Martin Truex, Jr. and the #78 team continued their streak of top 10 finishes last weekend at Fontana, pushing it to five in a row to start off the 2015 season. Over the last six Cup races, only Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano have better average finishes than Truex (and Kurt Busch, but I’m not counting him because he’s only ran three of those events). But Martinsville is a different animal and I don’t take into account momentum here as much as I do in a place like Fontana or Las Vegas. There are at least 500 chances for a driver to screw up during a race at “The Paperclip,” and one slip can ruin your entire race weekend. Truex hasn’t finished better than 16th at this track since the 2012 season but in that race he ended up 5th (while driving for Michael Waltrip Racing). Honestly, Martin should be ranked higher on this list heading into Sunday’s STP 500, but he didn’t impress me much in Saturday’s practice sessions, specifically Happy Hour where track conditions were most like what we will see on Sunday. Truex was 18th on the ten-lap average chart in that final practice.
Kasey Kahne is kind of the odd man out when I talk about Hendrick Motorsports, but make no mistake about it he has a good race car this weekend and could challenge for a top 10 finish on Sunday. Kasey will roll off the grid in 9th when the green waves on the STP 500 and he had the 5th-best ten-lap average in Happy Hour on Saturday (along with the 6th-fastest lap). As is the case pretty much every weekend with Kahne, though, it’s hard to trust the guy. Kasey finished 3rd and 4th here in 2012 and 2013 after joining Hendrick Motorsports but in the three events ran since then, he hasn’t been able to post a result better than 22nd. Looking at 2015 thus far, Kahne had that solid top 5 finish at Phoenix but has pretty much been a disappointment everywhere else. I’d like to take a shot with the #5 Chevrolet this weekend but deep down I know that won’t happen because it so hard to pull the trigger with this guy.
The only thing that comes to mind when I think of Tony Stewart right now is his average finish thus far in 2015: 31.6. That isn’t a typo. His 14th-place finish at Fontana last Sunday was the first time “Smoke” has ended up better than 30th this year. I’ve honestly started to question whether he has anything left in the tank. So, in case you were wondering, that’s why Stewart is a “High Risk” fantasy pick this weekend. It looks as though the #14 Chevrolet has speed here at Martinsville, though, so fantasy owners are looking at Stewart more than normal this weekend. He also qualified 6th for this year’s STP 500, and we all know how important track position is at Martinsville. Stewart came back down to earth in the two practice sessions on Saturday, though, and was 13th on the ten-lap average chart in Happy Hour. He finished 17th and 4th in the two races here last season, which is about the range I’m giving him on Sunday as well (big, I know haha). If everything goes perfect–which it won’t–“Smoke” could end up inside the top 5 this weekend. At worst, he’s a 17th-place pick. Stewart is an intriguing option this weekend but I just don’t trust him yet. Once he posts a top 10 finish in 2015, I’ll start giving “Smoke” a chance, but until then….
After back-to-back top 10s at Atlanta and Las Vegas, A.J. Allmendinger has come back down to earth (in a big way) with his 17th-place finish at Phoenix and his 34th-place result at Fontana last weekend. I’m trying to look past those disappointments this weekend, though, because “The Dinger” is probably the best sleeper option here at “The Paperclip”–especially since he’s driving a Chevrolet now. A.J. was a pleasant surprise here at Martinsville in 2014, posting finishes of 11th and 9th in the JTG Daugherty #47 machine. Will he be able to do something similar here in Sunday’s STP 500? Possibly, but I would’ve liked to see more speed out of Allmendinger in Saturday’s practice sessions. The #47 Chevrolet was just 15th in ten-lap average during Happy Hour and 17th on the overall speed chart. He qualified 10th, though, so A.J. has decent track position to start Sunday’s race. I’m expecting a top 15 out of him this weekend but if the #47 team can keep up with the track, a top 10 out of “The Dinger” wouldn’t surprise me one bit.
The Next Ten:
16. Paul Menard
17. Greg Biffle
18. Jamie McMurray
19. Austin Dillon
20. Danica Patrick
21. Clint Bowyer
22. Casey Mears
23. Aric Almirola
24. Chase Elliott
25. David Ragan