Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Preview

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Most agree Hendrick Motorsports is good. 219 wins good, eleven Sprint Cup championships good. Fourteen overall national series owner championships good. And their success has lasted three decades – with winning roots extending all the way to the site of this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

For Hendrick Motorsports 30 Rocks! In 2014, Hendrick Motorsports is celebrating their 30th anniversary in NASCAR – and this weekend, specifically, their first win at Martinsville Speedway.

On April 29, 1984 at Martinsville, Geoffrey Bodine took his No. 5 Chevrolet to victory lane for a single-car operation then known as All-Star Racing.

A year later, the team changed their name to Hendrick Motorsports. Three decades later, that tiny operation has evolved into a four-car juggernaut that has three of its drivers in the this season’s top-six in points.

No other major American professional sports organization has more championships than Hendrick Motorsports since 1984. In that time, the Los Angeles Lakers have won eight NBA championships and the Chicago Bulls have recorded six. Both the New York Yankees and Edmonton Oilers have tallied five titles apiece since ’84.

This weekend in the STP 500 at Martinsville, Hendrick Motorsports has an outstanding chance to add a bookend win to its 30-plus years in the sport.

Two drivers – Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson – sit atop the active wins list at Martinsville, with eight apiece. Johnson won last year’s spring Martinsville race, and Gordon won the fall race a the shortest race track in the Sprint Cup Series. They are the undisputed current ‘Kings of Martinsville’ – although Denny Hamlin has worked his way into that discussion.

In 24 starts, Johnson has finished outside the top-ten only three times. He has won two of the last three races – and tallied triple-digit laps led figures in the last four races.

Gordon has finished in the top-ten in 20 of the last 22 races at Martinsville, and finished third and first in last year’s two races.

Hendrick’s other two drivers – Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr – likewise have enjoyed success at the Virginia short track. Kahne – who drives the No. 5 that Hendrick first took to victory lane – has finished in the top-five of the last three races at Martinsville. More on Earnhardt Jr. later.

Five different drivers have won the first five races of the season. And for the record, that happened last year too.  But what hasn’t happened in the ten-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup – six different winners in the first six races.

The way the beginning of this season is unfolding, a record seems ready-made. The last six winners at Martinsville are Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson (twice), Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Of that group, only Kevin Harvick has won a race this season.

CaptureThat suggests one thing – Get ready for six-for-six.

The record for the most unique winners to start a season is ten in 2000.

Statistically, Johnson, Gordon and Hamlin look like the obvious choices to extend the streak of different winners to start the 2014 season. But Matt Kenseth might be the most intriguing candidate.

During his decade-plus career with Roush-Fenway Racing, Kenseth’s best finish at Martinsville was fifth. He led a combined 73 laps during that span. But last year alone, with new team Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth led a total of 298 laps – and finished second in the October Martinsville race.

Kenseth, after winning a series-high seven races in 2013, has a best finish of fourth this season last Sunday at Fontana.

The Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle is just that – a battle. The anticipation surrounding Austin Dillon’s entry into the Sprint Cup Series is followed – big time – by the sudden emergence of NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate Kyle Larson in the No. 42.

Dillon came into NASCAR’s premier series after winning championships in both Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series’. But for anyone thinking Dillon in the No. 3 is a lock for the top rookie honor, it’s time to re-think.

Larson’s second-place finish this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway – on the heels of a breakthrough victory the day before in the Nationwide Series – has him leading the rookie standings over Dillon 58 to 54.

From the wide – and wide-open – 2-mile Auto Club Speedway layout, it’s on to the shortest track on the schedule, .526-mile Martinsville Speedway. Larson has one Sprint Cup start there, finishing 42nd last October. Dillon has started four races at Martinsville, all in the truck series with a best finish of third.

“I had some good runs there in my truck but it’s going to be totally different there in a Sprint Cup Series car,” Dillon said. “It’s one of those races where you have to fight to stay in it. Things are going to happen. Things are definitely wild there, so hopefully, we can just have a good solid day as a rookie.”

At Martinsville, hope helps because the place is not a quick study. Four-time series champion, Jeff Gordon didn’t win there until his eighth start, in his fourth full-time Sprint Cup season. Another former champion, Matt Kenseth has never won there in 28 attempts; nor have 0-for-18 Kyle Busch, 0-for-19 Carl Edwards or an 0-for-28 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

And getting back to the subject of Dale Earnhardt Jr, his winless record at Martinsville belies the fact that it’s one of his best tracks. And for driver rating, it’s the best for him, with a 98.9 rating – fourth-highest in the Sprint Cup Series at Martinsville.

That point can more-or-less be viewed as a microcosm of Earnhardt’s career – lots of strong runs but surprisingly few victories. At Martinsville, a breakthrough appears imminent, especially considering his strong start to this season.

Earnhardt, second in the series point standings behind Carl Edwards (186 to 185), has five top-ten runs in his last seven Martinsville starts. His overall statistics show ten top-fives and 15 top-tens in 28 Martinsville races – that’s why Earnhardt has the solid driver rating at a track that has kept many drivers, over the course of many years, from visiting victory lane. This success is perhaps reflective of Earnhardt’s affection for short-track racing, which he reminded people two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway, saying, “this is where it’s at.”

Earnhardt finished eighth last fall at Martinsville, during a late-season rush that formed the foundation for his rise to contention this year. But he’ll be looking for better luck than he had a year ago at Martinsville spring race when he came in leading the series standings but finished 24th and lost the points lead to Jimmie Johnson.

The Kyle Busch countdown continues. Busch led five laps on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, bringing his career total to 9,938. He needs 62 more to become the 15th driver in Sprint Cup Series history to reach 10,000 career laps led.

David Stremme is returning to the Sprint Cup Series this week, driving the No. 33. His last start came at Richmond last September, when he finished 38th.

Twelve of the last 13 races at Martinsville that have finished under green have had a margin of victory of less than one second.