Anthony Ballantoni

Mid-Pack Attack

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Mid-Pack: STP Gas Booster 500

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Track history: One of the oldest tracks on the Cup circuit, Martinsville Speedway opened as a half-mile dirt track in 1947 with only 750 seats. The track hosted one of 8 races held in the 1949 “Strictly Stock” series which eventually became the NASCAR Cup series. Today, Martinsville seats 91,000 and has 25 corporate suites. The Virginia track, paved in 1955, is a flat paperclip shaped half-mile oval, which is tough on drivers, brakes and sheet metal. Most of the passing is done by shoving someone out of your way. This usually causes some payback, but “that's racin' on a short track”. Since it doesn't take long before the leaders catch the end of the field, they're coming up on some cars that don't want to go down a lap. That's when it really gets hairy. These guys at the rear are usually not handling very well already, but now they'll overdrive the cars to stay ahead of the leaders. Martinsville is a lot different from the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway, which is high-banked and totally concrete. Martinsville is flatter, with longer 800-foot asphalt straights, and a concrete surface, added in 1976, throughout the turns. At .526 miles, it is also Sprint Cup's shortest track.

September 25, 1949: Curtis Turner, in his No. 41 Frank Christian-owned 1949 Oldsmobile, led a field of 15 cars to the green flag of the 1949 Strictly Stock race on the 1/2 mile dirt oval track. Turner led 18 laps and finished ninth. Red Byron started the No. 22 Parks Novelty Oldsmobile third in the lineup, led 97 of the 200 lap race, and finished three laps ahead of second place, Lee Petty. Byron earned $1,500 for the win. He won two races in the eight-race season and became the 1949 series champion.

April 1, 2012: Ryan Newman won the Goody's Fast Relief 500 from a fifth place start. It was the No. 39 Chevrolet driver’s first victory of 2012 and first at Martinsville Speedway.  Drivers leading 10 or more laps: Race-winner Newman 12 laps; No. 29 Kevin Harvick 21 laps, finished 19th; No. 11 Denny Hamlin 31 laps, finished sixth; No. 48 Jimmie Johnson 111 laps, finished 12th and No. 24 Jeff Gordon led the most laps (329 of 515) and finished 14th. Pole-sitter No. 5 Kasey Kahne never led a lap, had a blown engine at the half-way point of the race and was credited with a 38th place finish.

October 28, 2012: Jimmie Johnson won the Tums Fast Relief 500 from the pole. It was the No. 48 Chevrolet driver's fourth victory in 2012 and his seventh in 22 races at Martinsville Speedway. Drivers leading 10 or more laps: No. 11 Denny Hamlin 12 laps, finished 33rd; No. 5 Kasey Kahne 12 laps, finished third; No. 55 Brian Vickers 27 laps, finished eighth; No. 24 Jeff Gordon 92 laps, finished seventh; No. 15 Clint Bowyer 154 laps, finished fifth; and Race-winner Johnson led the most laps (193 of 500).

Track Quick Facts (courtesy NASCAR Media):
Last five winners:  Denny Hamlin 10/24/10, Kevin Harvick 4/3/11, Tony Stewart 10/30/11, Ryan Newman 4/1/12 and Jimmie Johnson 10/28/12.
First Cup start here (Active drivers): Mike Skinner 4/27/86, Stacy Compton 4/21/96, Mike Bliss 9/27/98, Travis Kvapil 10/24/04, Michael McDowell 3/30/08 and Scott Speed 10/19/08.
First Cup pole: Kenny Wallace 4/20/97, Tony Stewart 4/18/99 and Scott Riggs 4/10/05.
First Cup win: Geoff Bodine 4/29/84.

Fantasy games won’t allow you to pick all track favorites so Mid-Pack Attack is here to help. A mid-packer may not win the race but has as good a shot at a top 20 finish as track favorites Jeff GordonJimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart (Denny Hamlin would be another but he is sidelined with a back injury for the next few weeks).  There were 44 cars on the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 in Martinsville, Virginia.

A very good friend on Florida’s east coast reminded me that picking mid-packers at Martinsville should be done with a dart board and a blindfold.  Sifting thru track favorites is tough enough at the unpredictable short track. Now that the top 15 in the 2013 NSCS driver points is a lot more stable, Mid-Pack Attack returns to its practice of not picking track favorites or any drivers currently in the top 15. All that being said, here are our best guesses for this weekend.

Mid-Pack picks
Martin Truex Jr. has a new attitude towards Martinsville Speedway. This week he said: “I used to think it was one of my toughest tracks, but since joining MWR, I feel like we’ve always been a contender.” Since he started driving for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010, he scored his three best finishes (fifth, eight and fifth); all in the last six races at the track. Also, running as high as third in both Martinsville races last season, Truex was a contender for the win. We think he’ll keep that trend going this weekend. Look for at least a top 20 from the No. 15 Toyota Camry this weekend.

Aric Almirola struggled in his first six trips to the paperclip track with a best finish of 20th. He showed a big improvement in 2012; logging an eighth place in this race followed up by a fourth last fall. Almirola piloted a Camping World Truck around the short track in five races earning an 11.4 average finish. This week, he has a big incentive to go for the victory in the STP Gas Booster 500. He’ll be driving The King’s No. 43 STP Ford. The paint scheme commemorates Richard Petty’s long-time relationship with the sponsor (since 1972 at Riverside). Find a spot for Almirola on your fantasy roster.

Ryan Newman is the defending race winner but is not considered a track favorite. He was in the right place at the right time during the two Green-White-Checker cycles at the end of the April 2012 race. The leaders either ran out of gas or wrecked each other during those 15 laps and Newman took advantage for his first career win at the track.  He does have six top-10s in his last eight starts at the speedway. NASCAR Statistics ranks Newman at the top of their “Closers” category for the last 16 Martinsville races. He has gained 47 positions in the final 10 percent of those events. We think the No. 39 Chevrolet SS will be up front at the end again on Sunday.

Our last “dart” found Nationwide Series regular and Sprint Cup part-timer Brian Vickers for our last pick. Driving a part-time Cup schedule has proven to be a good move. He was hired to drive the No. 55 in eight races in 2012 including the short-track races at Bristol, Martinsville and Loudon, New Hampshire. He finished fifth in his first race of the season at Bristol. He led 158 laps in those races– more than he led in his previous three full-time seasons. He just missed the pole at Martinsville (started second) in the fall of 2012. He led 37 laps and finished eighth. He already finished eighth this year at Bristol, so, when it’s his turn in the No. 55 Toyota, give Vickers some serious consideration at any venue for a spot on your team.

Tony Ballantoni runs the NASCAR coverage at
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