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Weekend Update: STP 500

Dan Beaver
Each Martinsville session seemed to have its own hero. Uncertainty makes the race interesting, but it makes the fantasy handicapper’s job difficult.

Martinsville Speedway is a rhythm track. Practice is a critical element in the decision making process because the drivers who find the right braking points on Saturday carry that into Sunday. Qualification is also important. This is one of the tightest pit roads on the circuit and it is easy to make a mistake or get blocked in.

A top-10 start certainly doesn’t guarantee a single-digit finish, but when the two factors (qualification and practice) combine, players should take notice. Unfortunately, each session seemed to have its own hero with Clint Bowyer and Chase Elliott posting single fast laps in practice and Joey Logano winning the pole. Uncertainty may make the race interesting, but it makes the fantasy handicapper’s job just that much more difficult.

Qualification

Joey Logano has certainly learned to qualify at Martinsville. His first eight races on this track resulted in only three top-10 starts while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. As soon as he moved to Team Penske, a switch flipped and he has not been outside of the top 10 since.  Now, seven of his last 10 Martinsville starts have ended on the front row. Logano has consistently finished up front as well with five top-fives and another pair of top-10s in his last 10 races. He should be considered a favorite to earn Stage 1 points and perhaps even the win.

Aric Almirola has not been particularly strong at Martinsville throughout his career. He has not scored a top-10 on this track in his last nine starts, despite qualifying among the top 10 in the past three races. Since spring 2017, he has been getting a little better, however, with lead lap finishes in four consecutive races. His last three have ended progressively better with an 18th in fall 2017, a 14th in this race last year, and an 11th in the fall 2018 race. Now that he has his career-best starting position at Martinsville and is coming off a string of top-10s this season, he may be set to score his fourth career top-10 on this track.

Brad Keselowski qualified third for his best start of the season. He has one other top-10 start this year on the other short, flat track of Ingenuity Sun Media Raceway, but a suspension problem dropped him off the lead lap and out of contention. This is Kez’s fifth consecutive top-10 start at Martinsville. Better still, he has six consecutive top-10 finishes – all but one of which are top-fives. He is expensive in cap games, but worth it.

Kyle Busch qualified poorly in 14th after having great practice sessions. He climbed out of his Truck following a victory and may have had some difficulty switching gears to the Cup car. Then again, that has rarely bothered him in the past and it is possible that he actually struggled with the handling on his Toyota. It’s easy to go broke betting against Busch, however, so count on him earning a top-five at least in the STP 500.

Practice

In Practice 1 for the STP 500, Kyle Busch picked up where he’s left off during the past two weeks. His 10-lap average speed of 96.642 mph was comfortably faster than Almirola (96.372) in second. Busch’s single fastest lap was only fifth best on that chart with Almirola third, but since this is a track that often features long green flag runs, Busch gets the nod.

Clint Bowyer posted the fastest single lap in the morning with a speed of 97.674 mph. It took three laps for him to get wound up to the fastest lap and that may have impacted his long run speed. Bowyer finished fifth-quickest on the morning 10-lap average chart.

Notably, Daniel Suarez was among the three slowest in regard to 10-lap average in Practice 1 with a speed of 93.356. That was more than three seconds off the pace.

In Happy Hour, Martin Truex Jr. logged the quickest 10-lap average. Although NASCAR Statistical Services does not provide the information, he reportedly had the best 15-, 20-, and 25-lap averages as well. He will start the race ninth and that should give him a decent enough pit stall that he won’t have to play catch up all day Sunday. Truex is tired of being passed for the victory in the closing laps and if push comes to shove this week, he is likely to get up on the wheel and be just as aggressive as his challengers.