National Weekend Preview: Hendrick Motorsports Primed For Paperclip Win At Martinsville

(NASCAR Wire Service)

Staff Report ~ NASCAR Wire Service

STP 500 At Martinsville LogoHeading into the eighth race of its debut 1984 season at Martinsville Speedway, Rick Hendrick was ready to shut down his fledgling All Star Racing team the next Monday.

Plans changed following the race, however.

Geoffrey Bodine piloted Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevrolet to Victory Lane, earning the organization sponsorship from Levi Garrett. The NASCAR juggernaut now known as Hendrick Motorsports was officially born.

Eleven premier series championships, 232 wins and 202 poles later, Hendrick Motorsports returns to Martinsville for Sunday’s STP 500 (1 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1). In the near 31 years since its first victory, HMS has amassed 22 wins at Martinsville – the most by any team at a single track in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history.

Hendrick Motorsports will go for its 23rd victory at the .526-mile track, which might as well be called “Hendrickville,” with drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and teenage wunderkind Chase Elliott, who will be making his Sprint Cup debut.

Martinsville mavens Gordon and Johnson lead all active drivers with eight victories at “The Paperclip,” while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the track’s defending fall race winner. Kahne’s top finish was a second-place showing in 2005.

Gordon got off to a slow start at the beginning of his final full-time season, but quietly logged top-10 finishes in the last two races and is poised to ascend from his 22nd position in the point standings. In addition to his eight wins, Gordon paces active drivers with five runner-ups and seven poles at Martinsville. He also boasts the second-best driver rating (119.8) and average finish there (6.8).

“I love the challenge of Martinsville. There’s one line there, and everybody is in it. You have to attack the corners at Martinsville, but you have to do it in a very smooth way – in a very patient way,” Gordon said.

Johnson probably disagrees Martinsville is a challenge. He supplements his eight wins with 18 top fives and 22 top 10s at the classic short track. The six-time NSCS champion lays claim to series bests in driver rating (122.5), average finish (6.2) and average green flag speed (91.700 mph) at Martinsville.

“I joke about NASCAR needing to adjust the schedule and have at least six stops to Martinsville and six stops to Dover to make up the calendar year,” Johnson said. “I love that track. I think it’s so entertaining – the history there is amazing. The feel that you have when you come Martinsville, it’s unlike any other racetrack that we go to.”

The NSCS debut of 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion Elliott has been much ballyhooed by fans since it was announced in January he would not just run at Martinsville, Richmond, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Darlington this season, but also take over the reins for Gordon in the fabled No. 24 Chevrolet next year. History indicates he might have a tough time piloting his No. 25 car this weekend. Only three drivers have scored a top 10 in their debut since 1990: Carl Edwards (10th at Michigan in 2004), Matt Kenseth (6th at Dover in 1998) and Kenny Irwin Jr. (8th at Richmond in 1997).

“As far as expectations go, I don’t really know what to expect,” Elliott said. “I just want to go out and give it all I’ve got.

“If we could go run all the laps, stay on the lead lap and be inside the top 15 at the end of Sunday’s race, I’d say that would be a day well done, across the board. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I can remember – it has been a dream of mine.”

Kyle Busch Motorsports turns to new drivers to continue Martinsville success

In its first five seasons of existence, Kyle Busch Motorsports wasted no time climbing to the top of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The organization collected three owner’s championships, 39 wins and 18 poles.

One particular track where KBM has dominated is Martinsville Speedway, the home of Saturday’s Kroger 250 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1). The Mooresville, North Carolina-based team has won one race each season at “The Paperclip” from 2011-14 through the prowess of Denny Hamlin (2011-12) and Darrell Wallace Jr (2013-14).

Each of those races was in the fall though; none were won in the spring. KBM rival ThorSport has taken the last two checkered flags in the spring Martinsville showdowns (Johnny Sauter, 2013; Matt Crafton, 2014). Furthermore, Hamlin is not entered in Saturday’s Kroger 250 and Darrell Wallace Jr. has moved on to the XFINITY Series with Roush Fenway Racing – a fresh face will have to continue KBM’s streak.

Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Justin Boston all hope they will be the new smiling face in Martinsville Victory Lane.

Of the three, Jones has the only NCWTS experience at Martinsville. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year frontrunner claims finishes of ninth, 18th and fourth at the .526-mile track. He is also the only member of the group with a Truck Series victory. The 18 year old boasts four wins in only 19 starts.

“It’s hard to believe that Martinsville is the place where I have the most experience, because it’s probably the track that I struggle at the most as a driver,” Jones said. “I feel like I’m still trying to figure it all out on my end, but each time out our Tundra has been faster and I’m getting better as well.”

Suarez and Boston both tested at Martinsville last week, gaining valuable seat time via the NCWTS rookie testing rule that allows first-year drivers to test on tracks they have yet to race on. Suarez claims finishes of ninth and fourth in the first two races this season, while Boston is still searching for his first top 10.

“Even though we’ve started off the season with a top five and two top-10 finishes, nothing from those two tracks will really transfer over to how we run at Martinsville,” said Jerry Baxter, Suarez’s crew chief. “What will transfer is that we have now worked together twice and continue to strengthen our relationship.”

Although he has no NASCAR appearances at Martinsville, Boston is hoping his Late Model experience at the track will help him.

“I’ve been to Martinsville before in a Late Model race in 2012, so I think that experience will definitely help,” Boston said. “It’s a tough place, and it’s definitely not easy on rookies. It takes a lot of discipline and it’s not easy. You have to race the track as much as you have to race your competitors.”

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