Track Talk: STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR. Additionally, we make predictions on who may win the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Amanda ParmeleeAshley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody Shoppe, Kathleen CassidyKatie Copple, Kerstin LewisKyle MagdaSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley discuss Kyle Larson’s second career Cup victory, Clint Bowyer’s return to the podium, the aftermath of penalties for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, and teams ready to rock around the clock at Martinsville!

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Question 1
The first of many victories for Kyle Larson.

The first of many victories for Kyle Larson.

Kyle Larson finally scored his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.  How much of a catalyst will this be for the No. 42 team heading into the “Southern Swing” of the schedule?

Hull :  Kyle Larson is having the best start of his career right now. Not only did he get his first win of the season last weekend, but he is leading he points right now, and has an average finish of 3.8. So he is rocking it right now. But statistically, the next four tracks aren’t really his best tracks. However, he has proven us wrong this year so far. No one would have thought he would be leading the points this early in the season. I think that he will continue to wow us. I think that this might be his year this year.

Fesko :  It’s not much of a catalyst in my opinion. The No. 42 team was already running strong before its win, so I would have expected Larson to be strong in the next set of five races just as he was in the first five.

Lewis :  The No. 42 team is looking strong going into the “Southern Swing” of the schedule as they’re hot off the “West Coast Swing.” I think the win at Auto Club Speedway will give them some great momentum and we just may see them on top of the podium again in the coming weeks!

Conley :  It’s huge to have that win under their belt, especially as they head to short tracks that take up three out of the next four races. If Larson comes out of this stretch unscathed, not only will it be prove that he’s got Johnson’s lucky horseshoe, but he has the Man of Steel’s cape as well.  The Nos. 42 and 1 teams could cause some serious headaches for the rest of the field.

Magda :  Larson is unstoppable right now, as he completed the Fontana sweep.  The Elk Grove, CA native had a dominant performance in Sunday’s Cup race.  It reminded me of another fellow who won the inaugural race back there in 1997. You might’ve heard of him: Jeff Gordon.

After finishing second in four of the last five races, Kyle Larson is a bridesmaid no more in 2017. The pairing between he and Chad Johnston is gelling much like it did for Martin Truex Jr with Johnston in late 2011 through 2012. In the next few weeks, keep an eye on Larson at Texas and Bristol, tracks where he’s historically been good at.

Cassidy :  Kyle Larson and the No. 42 team have been on a roll since the end of last year. I would not be surprised if we saw this team continue to score those top-fives and top-10 results along with bringing home a few more wins before the end of the season.

Shoppe :  Kyle Larson is on a role! After nearly winning most of the races this year, he finally broke through and did so in a big way by sweeping the weekend in Fontana! With Larson consistently putting whole races together, and driving as well as ever, I see the No. 42 team winning a bunch of races moving forward! I’d even say this is the most dangerous team in the Cup series at this point.

Copple :  Larson is slowly starting to prove himself in the Cup Series after a few years of falling short of expectations. Having this win early in the season gives the team the leeway to experiment with set up and race strategy leading up to the playoffs.

Parmelee :  With Kyle Larson finishing second three races in a row before his win at Fontana, I think the time of time of counting him as a “maybe contender” is over. It has been obvious that the guy has talent, but I think he’s finally proven that he can consistently contend for top-five finishes. I would be stunned if we don’t see at least another win in the next few weeks from the 42 team. But most importantly…we get Bloomin’ Onions when Kevin Harvick does well. Where are my Target coupons at?!

Question 2

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As Larson enjoyed the spoils of his second victory, Clint Bowyer smiled after his podium finish at Fontana.  As the highest finishing racer for Stewart-Haas’ team, is a win around the corner for the Emporia, KS native?

Hull :  It is refreshing to see Clint Bowyer have fun racing again after what he has been through in the last four years. He is faring a lot better than he was last year. However, I am not sure when the win will come for him. It may come at Richmond or Talladega where he is really good at. Other than that, it’s a wait and see kind of thing for him.

Fesko :  Not yet. Clint Bowyer is turning the page but it takes time for good runs to turn into wins.  Just ask Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. If he keeps it up, expect him to be a contender in the mid-summer stretch.

Lewis :  Clint Bowyer is headed in the right direction and said he has been “having fun again” racing with Stewart-Haas. In my opinion, that is part of racing. If you’re not having fun doing it, what’s the point? With the positive attitude and the team working well together, that’s a recipe for some wins.

Conley :  I’d say as early as this week. The 14 isn’t a slouch at Martinsville. Its old driver was pretty good too. Let’s remember that Clint Bowyer has spent plenty of time at the front or near the front with 12 top 10’s in 22 races at Martinsville. He also knows how to finish, finishing 20 of his 22 starts at the paperclip.

Magda :  After the whole Spingate deal at Richmond a few years back, to me, that derailed Clint Bowyer’s career for the next few years. He’s in competitive equipment again with SHR. I’m not surprised at all he’s running this well. I said it before the season started: the No. 14 team will make the playoffs. Putting the Kansas native back in top-notch equipment is a step in the right direction. Richmond is the race I’m looking at for him to break a five-year winless streak in the Cup Series.

Cassidy :  I really expect 2017 to be a good year for Clint Bowyer. I have high expectations for this No. 14 team, and I expect them to deliver strong finishes like their teammates, the Nos. 41 and 4 teams especially. I hope this is the start of a good season for Clint Bowyer. His racing talent is supported by a strong team.

Shoppe :  I predict that Clint Bowyer will win one race this year. Not only is this the first time in a long time that Bowyer has a chance to run up front, but it is also the first sense of stability for the No. 14 team in some time with former driver Tony Stewart missing many races over the last few years. If Bowyer can consistently have runs like he did last weekend, sooner or later, he will be in position to break his winless streak just like Ryan Newman did.

Copple :  Bowyer is running with one of the best teams in the garage and it’s starting to show. He has had a rough few seasons and I think his luck is finally starting to turn around. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the playoffs this season, whether that be by wins or by points.

Parmelee :  I adore Clint Bowyer and was excited to see him finish third this past weekend. Bowyer has managed to run quite a bit better so far this year than he did last year — finishing 32nd, 11th, 10th, 13th, and 10th this year versus 33rd, 35th, 22nd, 31st, and 18th last year during the first five races — and I would love to see him keep up the consistency as the series starts to head back East.

With the start he’s had this season, his goal of scoring more top-ten finishes look a lot better than they did last year. However, as much as I adore him, I’m still not convinced whether or not the 14 team will see Victory Lane any time soon.

Question 3
NASCAR brought a new meaning to this phrase: "dropping the hammer."

NASCAR brought a new meaning to this phrase: “dropping the hammer.”

NASCAR dropped the hammer with stiff penalties assessed to the teams of Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. Does this send a message to their competitors in terms of pushing the envelope or is the risk worth the reward?

Hull :  NASCAR pretty much threw the book at both of these teams. However, they broke the rules, so they need to suffer the consequences. Ultimately, I hope that NASCAR is consistent in all their rulings, and penalizes ALL teams the same way, not just certain teams. If you break the rules, you get penalized. Hopefully, it won’t be a commentary of how inconsistent and unfair they are as they have been in the past.

Fesko :  All teams need to push the envelope or risk getting left behind. It doesn’t matter what the deterrents are unless it’s an advantage that would be insanely egregious. The risk is absolutely worth the reward.

Lewis :  The penalties given out this past weekend should set an example to other teams. It is important for NASCAR to crack down and make sure the rules are being followed.

Conley :  They didn’t take away the bonus points that the teams carry in to the playoffs.  For Brad Keselowski, a 35 point penalty could be made up very easy, especially for a guy that leads the way in bonus points already.

Until you take away a win, a points penalty is just indeed that. It will take a couple of wins just to get those points back. The risk is worth the reward. Just look at the problems in the inspection line this past week. It honestly feels these penalties are just a message from officials who are saying, “We’re watching.”

Magda :  There’ll always be teams trying to find an advantage. It’s not illegal until you get caught, as I always say, but that’s how our sport is today. There’s ebbs-and-flows in the season where one team is better than the rest.  Then it changes towards the end of the season. It’s all about being good when it counts and I’m still learning how this points system works, penalties etc., because there’s so much going on at a given time.

Cassidy :  To a point, I think NASCAR sent a message to the teams. However, I think NASCAR needs to focus their messages all around, not just with “pushing the envelope,” per se. Looking back at past weeks, I think NASCAR needs to hammer down on all rules put into place. The phrase “boys will be boys” can only account for so much in the sport. Physical altercations or retaliatory moves with the car as a weapon should be examined further. Drivers could get hurt in more ways than one.

Shoppe :  I know if I was a crew chief, I’d be extra careful. I’m sure it must have teams thinking twice before doing something like using an unapproved track bar slider as was the case for the No. 4 team. When it comes to template issues, I suspect it’s just a small error that leads to these issues but they all should be checking their “claw” template an extra time or two before heading to the track.

Copple :  It sends a message to everyone –  if you break the rules, you’re potentially facing punishment. NASCAR has been very inconsistent when it comes to handing down penalties. Sometimes they will, and other times, they look the other way for the same offense and a different driver. NASCAR, be consistent – please!

Parmelee :  Well, I for one just learned way more than I ever thought possible about post-race inspections. However, I’ll be the first one to admit that post-race inspections are one of the things in NASCAR that confuse me the most. Though NASCAR does a decent job noting which general rule a team has broken — in this case, “Post-Race General Inspection Measurements” for Keselowski and “Track Bar Mount and Supports” for Harvick — they don’t tell us what ANY of that means.

I completely understand the idea of wanting to restrict the flow of information to prevent other teams from tinkering with things that NASCAR doesn’t want them tinkering with…which is probably why, as a former reporter, I’m dying to know what the secret is! I’m not sure if I think that it’s sending a message to competitors not to mess with certain specifications or if I think teams will continue to push the envelope of risk versus reward in the quest for the weekend’s trophy.

At the end of the day, teams are always going to do as much as they can to make their car the fastest thing out there. Will it work? All we know this week is that for Harvick and Keselowski, the answer is, unfortunately, no. But I think it’s important to remember that there could be a silver lining in this for NASCAR fans like myself. Sure, Harvick will race this weekend without Rodney Childers on top of the pit box. As of right now, I haven’t seen if they’ve chosen a replacement, but I swear to all things holy if it isn’t Tony Stewart, there is NO justice in this world.

Question 4
Rest assured, Joaquin Phoenix is not taking over Jimmie Johnson's job.

Rest assured, Joaquin Phoenix is not taking over Jimmie Johnson’s job.

Following three unique races at Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Auto Club, which drivers and teams look forward to racing at Martinsville this weekend?

Hull :  After a horrible race at Fontana, Jimmie Johnson looks forward to Martinsville. We all know that he knows how to get around that place. Barring any bad luck, he could cash in on a win Sunday. Also, the Joe Gibbs Racing boys will be happy after having a rough season thus far. With the exception of Daniel Suarez (who has never ran Martinsville), they are all good at this track. We could see some success out of them this weekend. Also, Martin Truex Jr. could also fare well here.

Fesko :  Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Earnhardt Jr all run well in Ridgeway and they should be a factor for the win on Sunday. Look for one of the Hendrick teammates to take home a grandfather clock when the checkered flag falls.

Lewis :  The No. 42 team have to be excited to return to the paperclip of Martinsville with the momentum of a win and a strong finish in the spring race last year.

Conley :  I’d say Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have to be at the top of that list, as they’re Martinsville masters that have had less than memorable starts to the season. At this point, Larson is elated to be at any track and with two solid top-10 runs. His teammate Jamie McMurray runs well at Martinsville.  Ultimately, McMurray looks forward to this weekend as well.

Magda :  The team that stands out for Martinsville is Hendrick Motorsports. They’ve won the last five fall races there but none in the spring since April 2013. This can be a turnaround weekend for the entire organization and help a guy like Dale Earnhardt Jr, who hasn’t had the greatest start to 2017. Also watch Joe Gibbs Racing because they typically run better in the spring at the paperclip and have won the last two spring races there with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Cassidy :  Moving forward, I am keeping my eyes on Team Penske. These boys have scored strong finishes, even when the odds were not in their favour. Having a penalty and crashing, Keselowski was still able to come back to finish second last weekend at Fontana. Similarly, Joey Logano suffered his share of mishaps last week, but he still came back to nab a top-five finish.

Shoppe :  Who wouldn’t be happy about racing at the paperclip this weekend? Martinsville is a favorite for the drivers and fans! Former Martinsville masters like Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr are just a few guys that are especially ready for the short track, as it is a chance to turn their season around and start some much needed momentum!

Copple :  Is anyone delighted to be racing at Martinsville? Maybe Jimmie Johnson, but he’s a special breed. Martinsville is going to be a true test for some of these teams this season and I cannot wait until race day! This is a unique track and offers a unique racing experience. I’m excited to see how the new guys handle this, especially Daniel Suarez. He might surprise us!

Parmelee :  Martinsville is the only Cup track that I’ve been to — and I’ve been to every Cup race for the past two years. I’ve grown to appreciate, and yes, even enjoy the oddly-colored hotdogs. Going from long, open straightaways to the shortest track on the circuit is a blessing for some of the teams that traditionally do better at places like Martinsville and Bristol. With his impressive sixth place finish at Bristol last Spring, I’m hoping Matt DiBenedetto pulls out another top-10 this weekend.

I also expect it brings a sigh of relief for drivers like Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth. I saw Hamlin take the checkered flag during my first race at Martinsville — followed by Jeff Gordon’s final win of his career, a weekend sweep for Kyle Busch, and finally the last win that Jimmie Johnson would ever be referred to as a six-time champion. But for Hamlin, Johnson, and Kenseth, a return to the “paperclip” will hopefully bring some much-needed improvement in their performance this season.

That’s four laps around this paperclip and we’re that much closer to our imaginary grandfather clock!  Before we tell you what time it is for the possible winner at Martinsville, let’s review how we all fared during last Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, CA!
Kyle Larson brought some happiness for a trio of panelists...

Kyle Larson brought some happiness for a trio of panelists…

...making things quite fun for the points race!

…making things quite fun for the points race!

It’s about that time, and no, not exactly the moment to play Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Right ‘Round (Like a Record)!”  Instead, we’ll share our picks to win Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway!
Our elite eight looks to head into Victory Lane at Martinsville!

Our elite eight looks to head into Victory Lane at Martinsville!

Tiongson :  If the defending and seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion wants to turn his season around, perhaps it takes place at the paperclip known as Martinsville Speedway.  Watch for Jimmie Johnson to remind us why we embraced his beard (or hated it).

Copple :  It’s Jimmie Johnson time!

TPF Stats :  Jimmie Johnson wants to win again.

Conley :  There have been six different winners in the last six races at Martinsville.  I never mentioned his name in any of the topics, but when it comes to running well at Martinsville and leading laps like Jeff Gordon, look for a first-time track winner: Brad Keselowski takes home a new clock.

Magda :  Brad Keselowski will win it.

Cassidy : Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 crew will win on 4-2!

Shoppe :  Keeping it clean with Matt Kenseth.

Hull :  My pick this weekend is going to be Martin Truex Jr. I think that he will win after having a solid season thus far.

Fesko :  Jamie McMurray takes the checkers on Sunday.

Lewis :  I think Kyle Larson will top the podium again this weekend.

Hobbs :  Clint Bowyer will make it happen at the paperclip!

Parmelee :  Look for Denny Hamlin to deliver a winning performance at Martinsville!

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  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 any organizations affiliated with the authors 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. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, 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, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

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.

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