Martinsville Speedway is a relic from another era. Not only is it NASCAR's version of Wrigley Field and a favorite among drivers and fans alike, the racing is vastly different than anything you will see throughout the season. If Daytona is a chess match at 200 mph, then Martinsville is a cage fight featuring short tempers and drivers never reluctant to use their bumpers.
Big names still in search of first Martinsville victory
Although it doesn't have quite the same prestige as winning the Daytona 500, Southern 500 or Brickyard 400, a win at Martinsville is almost as nice as one at the big-ticket venues. What makes winning at NASCAR's oldest track special is the exclusivity; 15 of the previous 19 races have been won by the select trio of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin. The trio own 20 Martinsville victories altogether.
"Those guys are very spectacular here," said Carl Edwards, who is still in search of his first Martinsville win. "They're very good. I know my first few years I would get out of the car and go down and stand and watch Jeff Gordon. The way he drives around here is just so smooth and precise. They're able to do things that I'm not able to do, so I've just got to keep working on it."
An oval that requires finesse and patience, Martinsville typically doesn't produce out-of-nowhere winners. More often than not, the track is a place where great drivers often shine and those who make to Victory Lane have a history of success. Of the 130 races Martinsville has hosted, nearly 70 percent have been won by a driver who has a Cup championship trophy on their mantle.
It's not a surprise then that quite a few prominent names are still in search of their first grandfather clock, which is awarded to anyone who wins a race at Martinsville. In addition Edwards, it's a list that includes Kurt and Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne.
Of this group, Kyle Busch and Kenseth appear most on the cusp of breaking through. Busch won the pole Friday and has five finishes of fifth or better in his previous nine races. While Kenseth led a combined 298 laps here last year and finished a close second to Gordon in the October race.
Settling old scores, igniting new feuds
The tight confines of Martinsville, where the field is packed together nose-to-tail, make the bullring the perfect track for drivers to extract revenge for past transgressions. Is this the race where Denny Hamlin seeks retribution on Joey Logano from the events that transpired over a year ago that culminated with Hamlin breaking his back in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway? Hamlin says he's moved on, but nerves can quickly get frayed on a short track and both drivers will be starting towards the front Sunday.
Martinsville can just as easily be the launching pad for hostile relations among drivers. That was the case two years ago when an ill-advised dive-bomb by Clint Bowyer was the catalyst for a feud with Jeff Gordon that memorably came to a head later in the year at Phoenix.
Can Danica Patrick again surprise?
Martinsville isn't a track often kind to those without experience, which made what Danica Patrick accomplished a year ago all the more notable. Despite starting at the rear of the field due to pre-race engine change and an early spin which put her two laps down, Patrick clawed her way back to finish 12th in her first race on the half-mile oval. It was arguably her most impressive drive of the season, and that includes her effort in the Daytona 500.
Patrick is seemingly poised for another good result Sunday. In qualifying she posted the 10th-fastest time, which is her best ever starting position on a track other than Daytona. If she can avoid being bogged down with the bedlam that Martinsville often produces, Patrick has a real shot of claiming just her second career top-10 finish.
1. Denny Hamlin
One week after having to sit out due to an eye injury, Hamlin returns at his favorite track on the circuit where he just so happens to be a four-time winner. He predicted Friday he was going to win the STP 500, and the native Virginian has record of being right whenever he calls his shot. There will be no driver more motivated on Sunday.
2. Jimmie Johnson
If Hamlin is the favorite then Johnson should be considered 1B. He leads all active drivers with eight Martinsville victories, including the 2013 edition of this race. Although the No. 48 hasn't shown the same speed as Hamlin's No. 11 in practice, Johnson will most certainly factor into the outcome.
3. Matt Kenseth
If there is someone who can break through the Hamlin/Johnson/Gordon stranglehold the safe bet is Kenseth, who came close to winning his first grandfather clock in October before being passed by Gordon with 20 laps to go.