Will Denny Hamlin deny Kyle Busch hat trick?
March 20, 2019 3:00 AM
by Micah Roberts
Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway’s flat half-mile layout will give us another glimpse of the car used at Phoenix two weeks ago that featured engines with 750 horsepower.
Last week at California, the NASCAR Cup series used a package with just 550 horsepower, the same as Las Vegas and Atlanta this season.
For oddsmaking and handicapping purposes, we have to break down the results based on each package because a few teams have shown to be better at one or the other. So far, we’ve been having success identifying the drivers who are best prepared to compete for the checkered flag as one of the top-5 picks has delivered for six weeks in a row.
Last week’s package was used at Las Vegas, with aero-ducts, and in both races, Kyle Busch had the best car. He also had a late pit road speeding penalty in both. He couldn’t climb out of the hole in Las Vegas, but he did at Fontana to win his 200th career NASCAR race between the three national series.
Busch also won at Phoenix using the package with 750 horsepower. Denny Hamlin won the season opener with the traditional restrictor-plates for the last time ever. Brad Keselowski won at Atlanta with the 550 horsepower package (no aero-ducts), and Joey Logano won at Las Vegas with the same package used at Fontana last week and finished second behind Busch Sunday.
It’s obvious who has things figured out with each package right now and it will be reflected in the odds. Kyle Busch doesn’t have the most wins at Martinsville – just two in 27 Cup starts – but he’s feeling it right now and he gets greedy with wins. He goes on rolls and wins in bunches. He’s won three straight races twice in his career, including last season.
Both his Martinsville wins, and the grandfather clock trophies that come with it, have come in his last six starts there. He’s finished in the top-five in his last seven starts at the paperclip-shaped layout. He’s had 15 top-fives in his 27 starts. That is an amazing accomplishment and through the years we’ve seen several drivers go through dominant stretches at Martinsville.
Now when you factor in Busch with his track history, current form and going greedy for three straight wins, he’s an easy favorite this week. I don’t want to bet against my Las Vegas homey, but I also want to take advantage of some other drivers’ odds that may be higher because of his weight on the high end.
Martinsville’s flat layout is the main variable here. Other than road courses, it’s probably the most dependant upon a driver’s skill set which is why we can put past history there at a higher level than we’ve been doing for the past few weeks with the new packages. Mix in Phoenix, but also put past history into the equation at a 50-50 split.
If past history does come into play, no active driver has a better history at Martinsville than Jimmie Johnson with nine wins, an eighth-place average finish, and 2,863 laps led. His last win came in the fall of 2016 and he hasn’t cracked the top-10 in his last four starts since then. However, his eighth-place Phoenix run was encouraging for those looking to support Johnson at the bet windows.
The next best active driver statistically at Martinsville has been Denny Hamlin with five wins and a 9.7 average finish leading laps in 20 of his last 23 starts. The native Virginian has been racing at Martinsville his entire racing career in all series and has developed a skill set that few others have, especially entering and exiting the tight turns as fast as possible with minimal braking.
He was runner-up last fall. His fifth-place at Phoenix with the new package suggests he’ll have one of the better cars on the track this week and coupled with his skill set, love of the track, and Mama’s home cooking, he’s a solid bet this week in odds to win and driver match-ups.
The only other driver outside of Johnson, Hamlin and Kyle Busch with multiple wins at Martinsville is Kurt Busch with two (2002, 2014) and he’s off to a fantastic start this season. The elder Busch brother has been the bright star for Chevrolet in 2019 this season and finished seventh at Phoenix.
The Penske Mustangs should also be good this weekend. Joey Logano picked up his first grandfather clock last fall and Brad Keselowski grabbed his in 2017. Both drivers have learned to be strong drivers at Martinsville, but neither of them impressed me at Phoenix.
When using the 550 horsepower package, they’re elite, but their set-ups with this 750 horsepower package is still a wait and see. Logano was 10th at Phoenix and Keselowski was 19th, and neither led a lap.
The bright spot at Phoenix for Penske was Ryan Blaney who finished third and led 94 laps. In this race last season, Blaney finished third and led 145 laps.
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