Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ STP 500 at Martinsville Preview

Catch the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Martinsville Speedway in the STP 500 on Sunday, April 2nd at 2 pm ET.  Television and radio coverage begins at 12:30 pm ET on FOX Sports 1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Drivers will race 500 laps covering 263 miles with Stage 1 ending on lap 130 and Stage 2 ending on lap 260.  

What To Watch For: Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson attempts to extend his active Martinsville wins lead to ten. Johnson won last year’s fall race at “The Paperclip.” Kyle Busch, last season’s spring Martinsville winner, tries to defend his victory.

Brad Keselowski goes for his fifth consecutive top-five finish.

Clint Bowyer attempts to build on his third-place finish last Sunday at Auto Club. The showing was his best since June 28, 2015 at Sonoma.

Short Strokes: Three drivers who already have won races this season were the three fastest in Saturday’s first practice. Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski topped the speed chart at 94.406 mph, followed by Phoenix winner Ryan Newman and Las Vegas winner Martin Truex Jr.

Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Daniel Suarez, who backed his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the turn three wall in Friday’s opening practice, had trouble getting his backup car up to speed on Saturday morning. Suarez ran 75 laps in Saturday’s first session and was 34th fastest at 92.056 mph.

In warmer conditions during final practice, Keselowski was fourth fastest behind Clint Bowyer, who led the session at 93.863 mph, Kyle Busch (93.567 mph) and Jamie McMurray (93.530 mph). Suarez improved to 25th in Happy Hour with a top lap at 92.312 mph.

California Winning: Larson Notches First Win of Season at Auto Club

Kyle Larson snapped a streak of three consecutive runner-ups, leading 110 laps and winning Stage 1 on his way to Victory Lane in last Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

The No. 42 Chevrolet driver extended his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points lead to 29 points over Chase Elliott. Because of his victory and stage win, Larson now has six playoff points.

Larson, who also won Saturday’s XFINITY Series race, became the 17th driver to sweep a national series weekend.

The 24-year-old Californian hopes to start a winning streak at Martinsville Speedway in Sunday’s STP 500. He owns a high finish of third there.

Bowyer Captures First Top-Five Finish Since 2015

Clint Bowyer’s third-place showing marked his first top-five result since he finished fifth at Bristol on Aug. 22, 2015. It was also Bowyer’s best finish since his third-place showing at Sonoma on June 28, 2015.

Bowyer has two top-tens so far this season, only one less than his mark from last year when he finished a career-low 27th in the final standings.

Right now, the Kansas native sits eighth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings, 100 markers below leader Kyle Larson.

This is Bowyer’s first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, replacing three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Ford.

“It means a lot to me to be in this 14,” Bowyer said. “I have a lot of fun with these guys. Buga (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) and all these guys mean business. It’s a confidence thing right now, a momentum-builder, and we’re getting closer. Obviously, this is a good track for me. I wanted to win that damn thing, but to come home with the wild finish and everything that it was, we’ll take it.”

Truex Back Up Top

Martin Truex Jr. is showing his breakout in the last two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series seasons was no aberration. The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing driver, who won a career-high four races last season, has powered to a strong 2017 start with one win, two top-fives and three top-tens in the first five races.

Truex leads the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with eight playoff points and is tied with Kevin Harvick for first in stage wins with three. His 7.4 average finish ranks second-best to Kyle Larson (3.8). Truex sits third in the points standings, 38 points behind Larson.

Plethora of Young Drivers in Playoff Picture

We’re only five races into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, but if it ended today, six drivers under the age of 27 would make the playoffs: Kyle Larson (24 years old), Chase Elliott (21), Joey Logano (26), Ryan Blaney (23), Erik Jones (20) and Trevor Bayne (26).

Blaney, Jones and Bayne would all be first-time playoff participants. Jones would join Elliott (2016), Chris Buescher (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2006) as the fourth Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender to ever make the playoffs.

Martinsville’s Finest:

Jimmie Johnson Leads Active Drivers with Nine Wins at the Paperclip

Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has struggled in the first five races with only one top-ten finish – a ninth-place showing at Phoenix.

Luckily for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports driver, he’ll get the chance to turn his season around at arguably his top track – Martinsville Speedway.

Johnson leads active drivers with nine wins, 19 top-fives, 24 top-tens, a 7.8 average finish and a 117.7 driver rating at “The Paperclip.”

He won the fall Martinsville race last year to clinch his spot in the Championship 4.

Hendrick Motorsports boasts a Martinsville track-record 24 wins. 

Kyle Busch Attempts to Defend Spring Martinsville Victory

Kyle Busch will attempt to visit Victory Lane for the second consecutive spring at Martinsville in Sunday’s STP 500 at the Southern Virginia short track. Busch led 352 of 500 laps on his way to his first win of 2016. Overall, he claims one win, 11 top-fives and 12 top-tens at Martinsville.

On the season, Busch has finishes of 38th (Daytona), 16th (Atlanta), 22nd (Las Vegas), third (Phoenix) and eighth (Auto Club). He won Stage 1 at Daytona.

Busch sits tenth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings, 107 markers below Kyle Larson.

Parity Party: Five Different Winners through First Five Races

Five different drivers have won the first five Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races: Kurt Busch (Daytona), Brad Keselowski (Atlanta), Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), Ryan Newman (Phoenix), Kyle Larson (Auto Club). 

Keselowski Records Fourth Straight Top-Five Finish

Lost in Kyle Larson’s blazing hot start to the season has been the consistency of 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. The No. 2 Ford driver has strung together four straight top-five finishes, including a win (Atlanta) and runner-up (Auto Club).