Track Talk: A Preview of the STP 500 at Martinsville

Tick, tock, you don’t stop.  Tick tock, you don’t stop.

OK, so it’s not the most original way to segue into today’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, “The Half Mile of Mayhem,” but at least we are staying far away from a Color Me Badd hit tune from 1991.  But let’s connect with those lyrics for a moment and consider the following.

The winner of today’s race will take a grandfather clock home.  Those certainly go tick tock around the clock. NASCAR raced at this venue back in 1991 and one of the most memorable races in Sprint Cup history, much less this storied track’s history, was back in September 22.  For those who watched the ESPN telecast on that fateful Sunday, Harry Gant would score a “come-from-behind” victory in what had to be one of the most wrecked up winning racecars this side of the Mississippi River.

Let’s move the clock forward to 2016 (no pun intended).  While one of the track’s most successful racers, Jeff Gordon, won’t be in the 24 car going for a 10th win at this venue, his successor, Chase Elliott, could make a good case for his first victory with a team that knows its way at the Old Dominion speedway.

Consider the fact that Jimmie Johnson is now the active leading winner at Martinsville.  With eight wins on his resume at this grand old track, the No. 48 team certainly will be ready to go for another trip to the winner’s circle which would tie him with Gordon who co-owns this ride along with Rick Hendrick.

Then there’s those who are ready to make this a day in which Hendrick isn’t earning yet another victory at this track. Last spring’s winner Denny Hamlin would love to win his second race of the year and duplicate his efforts in the STP 500 while Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski hope to redeem themselves from what appeared to be a certain 1-2 finish in last fall’s race to a pair of torn up racecars.

Will today’s race back up Martinsville’s reputation as the short track with short tempers?  Whether it’s the “Half Mile of Mayhem” or the grandfather clock rewarding track, this is one venue that is still as fun, respected, and highly regarded as it was in 1947 like it is today.

Before we wind up the clock for a 500 lap battle today, let’s talk about the Trending Topics here on Track Talk with our TPF team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull,Cody Shoppe, Jessica TowKathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Sean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics
Question 1
Real good racin'.

Real good racin’.

NBC Sports reported that race fans were pretty thrilled with this year’s racing action as they graded it with an A- per The Century Poll.  In relation to our question during the Fontana preview, would you say that more could be done to improve the racing experience for fans from your perspective?

Tow :  As great as the racing is now with the new low-downforce aero package, I think there is always going to be room for improvement, especially with times changing and technologies advancing. However, as a race fan myself, I enjoy watching races where there is side-by-side action, rubbing/bumping, and close finishes. While NASCAR has continued to modify and expand horizons, I think the sport is the best it has ever been in terms of this era/decade.

Fesko :  Certainly, and the tracks and television partners are working on this already. Let’s face it: fans – especially the new millennials – have shorter attention spans than in years past. If cars were taxed to the point of breaking and drivers struggling to control their cars, the sport could get away with 4-hour races. But neither happens, so shortening races (like Auto Club and Pocono have) is a good start. Adding amenities for fans is important too – tracks could always use more restrooms and the branded snacks tracks like Texas and Talladega have created are super popular. Music festivals, the Neon Garage, fan injectors, etc. – all of these are important for bringing fans to the track.

Hull :  I don’t think that there is anything we can do to improve the racing experience, because I think the racing this year has been great! It takes us back to the 1990’s, when racing was more thrilling. It has been the product of the new low downforce package. The package allows cars to pass more, thus helping us with the exciting racing. I think that they shouldn’t mess with the package, and keep it, because a lot of fans are satisfied!

Copple :  I think NASCAR is doing some great things this season to improve the racing experience, not only for the fans but for the drivers and crews as well. We are just a few weeks into the season and we’ve already witnessed two of the closest finishes in NASCAR history! Things aren’t going to change overnight but NASCAR is headed in the right direction.

Shoppe :  The racing this season has been excellent! I’d give it an A myself. The aero package has helped improve racing better then I expected and as well as NASCAR could have hoped.  There’s no sense in making too many changes all at once. As long as the tires brought each week by Goodyear work with the setups, there should be no problem.

Cassidy :  If NASCAR wishes to continue to improve the fan experience, I believe they need to consider more feedback from fans. Although fans can sometimes react too quickly to a change implemented by NASCAR, the feedback should be considered. I feel as though as a fan our opinions are often set aside within the sport until someone else suggests it, for example, the drivers.

My theory is that you might as well use what you have to your advantage. In this case, NASCAR has tons of fans who would be more then willing to give their opinion or thoughts to help make the sport better.  P.S. Please include Canadians in this process.
Question 2
Swag.

Swag.

AJ Allmendinger and Brian Scott brought home solid finishes at Fontana two weeks ago (eighth and 12th respectively), easily making it their best results thus far in 2016.  Do you see the 47 and 44 teams having successful runs in the near future and is this indicative of the drivers and teams as a whole or the package showcasing a wild card factor in the Sprint Cup Series?

Tow :  Both Allmendinger and Scott have great opportunities to find success with their respective teams as a whole. While the sport’s top teams have appeared to dial in the new rules package, both of these drivers remain wild cards in my book as they continue working to figure out this new package. I certainly won’t count either of them out just yet.

Fesko :  I was never one of the ones decrying Brian Scott’s appointment to the No. 9 – XFIINTY results aren’t necessary to do well in Cup (see Johnson, Jimmie). Scott is a capable racer and ran fantastically in similar-to-RPM equipment last season. He could very well be a dark horse this season. Will he win ROTY? Probably not, but it won’t be as big a loss as people were expecting.

As for Allmendinger, he could swing either way. The good news is he could easily take a road course victory and make the Chase. That is where the team needs to focus, but the No. 47 could very well point its way into the Chase.

Hull :  It is again a wait and see kind of deal. Sure they had solid finishes for ONE race, but that’s not always indicative of how the rest of the season will go. Other than that, they both have had lackluster finishes. So again, it will be a wait and see kind of thing with these two. They could improve, and AJ Allmendinger could do really well at a road course this season. But for the most part, it’s up in the air.

Copple :  I can definitely see Allmendinger having some great races this season. He is a talented driver with a lot of potential and some pretty bad luck in the past. He had three top-10s last season and a pole position and I can see him bettering that for 2016. As far as Brian Scott, he has a lot of potential as well. He is still getting his feet wet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. He has a lot of growing to do as a driver but he has the talent!

Shoppe :  I have been very impressed with the role AJ Allmendinger and his No. 47 team this year. They had a rough start to the year at Daytona and Atlanta. Since then he has been on a roll. A top-10 by one of the single car teams is a remarkable achievement! I expect the Dinger will have a good chance at returning to the Chase this year.

Cassidy :  Each season needs a few underdogs. I see no reason why the 44 and 47 could not steal a win from the big name teams.

Question 3
Erik Jones - an awesome driver who says no thanks to hair gel.

Erik Jones – an awesome driver who says no thanks to hair gel.

Erik Jones intimated that his plans for 2017 are set during a media appearance in anticipation for the XFINITY Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.  Do you see the 2015 Truck Series champ driving for a Joe Gibbs Racing related effort such as Furniture Row Racing?

Tow :  Absolutely, since JGR’s Cup stable is currently full with seemingly no changes in the near future, it makes total sense for young Jones to run a second car fielded by Furniture Row Racing. I am positive that this would be a great move for all parties involved as Furniture Row continues to find top-level success with Martin Truex, Jr. this year.

Fesko :  Yes. If he’s already hinting his plans are set, he’ll be back with JGR. Whether that’s a second season in the NXS series with a Cup option or being farmed out to FRR, we’ll see. I’d imagine Gibbs wouldn’t want to lose Jones to FRR because once he’s established in that car it would be harder to take him back. I think you’ll see Jones race one more season in the XFINITY Series and move to Cup in 2018, potentially replacing Matt Kenseth.

Hull :  I think that he could possibly move up the Gibbs ladder a bit. Maybe if Furniture Row gets a second car, he could join them. There is also a possibility that Matt Kenseth could retire in the next few years as well, so it will be hard to tell what his future will be. Either way, he has a solid future with Gibbs and Toyota. He is very talented, and has proven that to Joe Gibbs so much.

Copple :  For him to drive for Furniture Row Racing, Martin Truex Jr. would have to leave the No.78. I don’t see them expanding to a two-car team. Jones is the next generation of Sprint Cup Series drivers with a lot of talent. I hope he ends up behind the wheel of a good team!

Shoppe :  I think Erik Jones will end up in a new Furniture Row team in 2017. There is obviously no room at JGR in the near future for Jones but I believe he is Cup ready next year.

Cassidy :  I believe that Erik Jones will stick with Joe Gibbs Racing. I don’t see him going to an afflicted team, unless there is no other opening. For a long time I believed that Erik Jones would replace Matt Kenseth to take over the 20 car. However, with Matt’s success over the past two seasons, I have changed my mind.

Question 4
It'll be a busy time for the crews of these Cup teams.

It’ll be a busy time for the crews of these Cup teams.

Martinsville kicks off a stretch with 10 points races (and the Sprint All Star event). Will we start to see some of comers and goers during this run of Sprint Cup races and if so, who’s going to be a bit nervous about their chances of making the Chase field after the June race at Michigan?  

Fesko :  Out of the drivers currently in the top 16 in points, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon have got to be a little nervous. Both have had great starts to the season but neither have a track record of being great. I think Dillon can pull it off – he’ll win this season or at the very least, point his way into the Chase. Stenhouse has unreliable Roush Fenway Racing equipment and could see a slide backwards in the points because of that. With drivers like Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and even Tony Stewart behind him in points, he’ll have to run strong to make the Chase without a win.

Hull :  There will be some challenging tracks coming up for sure, like Martinsville that could shake the field up a bit. It is too early to tell who will have the most trouble, as that anything can happen, but think that drivers such as Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. need to keep having the consistent runs they need in order to make it. But again, we shall see what happens. This is a product of the Chase format, you never know who you will see in it.

Copple :  I think it’s still too early to predict who will be struggling to make the Chase come Michigan, but I don’t think any of these drivers will be slowing down, even towards the end of the 10-race stretch. This will be the first big test of the season…the first long race run. Will we see a handful of drivers take off with a number of race wins by the end of it? I think that’s more likely.

Shoppe :  This is the time of the year where the cream rises to the top. Guys like Matt Kenseth and Chase Elliott who are currently 15th and 16th in points will work their way up while guys like Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr will have to prove that their early season success is no fluke and they can hold there own in the chase eligible positions.

Cassidy :  If Dale Jr. is not in the Chase field by the June Michigan race, I feel like not only the 88 team, but his fans will be worried. However, Dale will have one more Michigan and Pocono race to work his magic. Being at MIS in June brings a lot of excitement to how this chase will play out.

Ain’t no stopping us now, we’re talking Martinsville!  Great job as always, team!  Before getting to our race picks for today’s STP 500, let’s review the race results at Fontana from two weekends ago and look at the points standings heading into race number six of 2016!
While it was a good day for yours truly...

While it was a good day for yours truly…

...there's still plenty of racing to do with Hull owning it so far!

…there’s still plenty of racing to do with Hull owning it so far!

Are we ready for some Martinsville racing today?  Thought so – let’s reveal our race picks for the STP 500!
There's a near 13% shot that we will pick the winner!

There’s a near 13% shot that we will pick the winner!

Hull :  My pick for today’s STP 500 is Denny Hamlin.

Tiongson :  I have to think our Daytona 500 winner is happy to be home in the Dominion State.  Perhaps he’ll attack this race much like the Jem’Hadar and Breen did on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or I’ve perhaps watched too much of the latter these days.  Either way, Denny Hamlin shall deliver a win on Sunday at Martinsville!

Shoppe :  Denny Hamlin is my race pick.

Tow :  I am going with Denny Hamlin for today’s race.

Hobbs :  I’m going against my stats as I’ll pick Denny Hamlin.

Fesko :  Jimmie Johnson is my pick to win the STP 500.

Cassidy :  Matt Kenseth is my pick.  Just a feeling.

Copple :  I’m going to take a chance here and go with Chase Elliott!

Conley :  Joey Logano is my pick.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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