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STP 500 Picks

Race: STP 500
Date: Sunday April 2, 2017
Track: Martinsville Speedway
Time: 2 PM ET
TV: Fox Sports 1

by Virginia Vroom, NASCAR Handicapper, Predictem.com

Our B list friend helped us out last weekend at California, coming away with the checkered flag at Auto Club Speedway, wrapping up the final leg of the west coast swing. Perhaps the best part of it all was getting some validation after exuberantly letting Michael Waltrip that his chances of finishing second were pretty fantastic during the pit-road walk before the race. His win comes as a result of an overtime restart and some strategy with tires that allowed him to drive around Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Jamie McMurray. Overall, Larson led a total of 110 laps, clearly dominating the race.

When it came down to it, this was maybe one of the better races at Auto Club. We still saw some longer green flag runs, but there were certainly a litany of issues among several of the drivers. Jimmie Johnson barely maintained his record of finishing every race here on the lead lap. He got tangled up with Brad Keselowski during the opening laps when Brad cut a tire down. Ironically, Keselowski took the runner-up spot, leaving Johnson in his dust. While Martin Truex Jr. led the second stage and took the win for the segment, Larsonís crew managed some good calls on pit road to straighten out his Target Chevy and get him back to the front of the pack. Rounding out the top five behind Larson and Keselowski were Bowyer, Truex Jr., and Logano.

This weekend, itís a whole new ballgame. We are headed to the shortest track on the NASCAR circuit. Short tracks are a different beast. We are going to see a lot more of those Kyle Busch-like tempers flare at a place like Martinsville. If you can believe it, this track opened its gates in 1947. This 0.526 mile speedway is a combination of asphalt and concrete. It has 12 degree banking in the turns and no banking on the straights. This track is affectionately known as ďThe PaperclipĒ because of its sharp turns and flat surface. Itís a very tight track, with only 800 feet of frontstretch and backstretch. This is a place where drivers test their carsí limits on braking for sure. Speeds arenít high but these cars take a beating as they run very close to each other and basically ram the cars into the corners and slam the gas coming out. Itís a pretty cool place to see a race.

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This track is hard for me to pick this week. There are some very obvious veterans who have dominated this place in the past. Most notably, Jeff Gordon was always the king of Martinsville. We miss you, Jeff! Being that he isnít racing anymore, his counterpart, Jimmie Johnson, has done a darn good job in taking over that domination and has provided his fair shares of Martinsville grandfather clocks to the Hendrick garage. Other than Johnson, we have to consider Denny Hamlin. This is what he considers his home track, being that heís from Chesterfield. I think that itís Dennyís aggressiveness that helps on a track like this one. This is a place where drivers move drivers to make spots. Denny is very good at moving other guys and also blocking, which is an important skill here, especially on those many many restarts that we will see. Hereís the rundown of my picks to win this week:

My Pick to Win: Denny Hamlin
Middle of the Road Pick: Clint Bowyer
Dark Horse Prediction: Jamie McMurray

McMurray has somewhat of a bipolar relationship with Martinsville. He can either be very competitive or simply struggle the whole race. He has a best finish of 2nd here in 2015. His last race here in October saw him come home in 8th place. He has a good chance at a solid top 10, especially if he can keep up some of the good thatís come his way this season so far. Clint Bowyer used to be very very good here. In fact, he finished in the top 10 for 5 races in a row, with his best finish of 2nd place coming in 2013. He seems to be finding his groove a bit more this year, leading me to believe that he will get back to that competitive streak here at Martinsville. Bowyer has that in him, and this is just the place to bring it back out. Overall, though, Hamlin is going to add a win to his already 5 victories he has here at Martinsville on Sunday. Heís had a good run of bad luck in some races already this year, despite having great cars. If he can stay off the walls and everyone elseís fenders, Hamlin should be at the top of the pack on Sunday.

Here are your current top 16 after last week's race:

1. Kyle Larson
2. Chase Elliott
3. Martin Truex Jr.
4. Brad Keselowski
5. Joey Logano
6. Jamie McMurray
7. Ryan Blaney
8. Clint Bowyer
9. Kevin Harvick
10. Kyle Busch
11. Ryan Newman
12. Denny Hamlin
13. Kasey Kahne
14. Kurt Busch
15. Erik Jones
16. Trevor Bayne

I still find it pretty unbelievable that those top 16 spots exclude drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr., and Matt Kenseth. These guys have plenty of time left in the season to get up there, but itís just crazy to see Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott at the top of the grid. I guess the newcomers are here to stay! In my opinion, though, Martinsville is a veteranís track. It takes quite a bit of skill to get around this track as well as strategy from the pit crew and crew chief. This weekend will most definitely prove who the true wheelmen are. Grab a Martinsville hotdog and stay tuned for one of the best races of the season. Weíre going short track racing, yíall!

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