Chris Rice examines what to watch as the Sprint Cup Series hits the Paperclip
Editor's note: Chris Rice, crew chief for the No. 99 Rheem Toyota for RAB Racing and driver James Buescher in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis ahead of Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway (1 p.m. ET, FOX).
The knockout qualifying for Martinsville is going to be pretty interesting because it's one groove right around the bottom of the race track. The good thing is that where you can come into pit road is right off of the back straightaway, so that’s not going to bother drivers as much. The race track is going to fill up early and then it will kind of thin out. With 45 cars trying to make laps there at the beginning, it’s going to be cool.
I’m sure that the tire is going to let you go more laps than Fontana. It’s going to go back to Phoenix, where they can go faster and faster. So it's going to be interesting all the way up to the last second of qualifying, especially with everyone trying to get into the top 12; then after they get into the Top 12, they will be going for the pole with only two rounds at Martinsville.
With the new qualifying at every race track, something different is going to show up. I think at the short tracks it is really fun to watch as the tire continually gets better so then you really never know who is going to be in the top 12. Those drivers sitting on the bubble may have to go again, might not have to go again and you are not going to have your one-lap wonders. You are going to have cars that can run fast for a long period of time.
The Hendrick cars are crazy strong at Martinsville. Looking into the race, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne look good. Kahne and his team have some work to do as his team has had some trouble of late. Johnson and Gordon really ran well at Fontana this past weekend (with some late breaks not going their way) so they should take some momentum moving into Martinsville.
Could this be the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaks through at Martinsville? He has really run well this year. He could do it, because what you have to look for at Martinsville is patience, patience, patience -- and Junior has patience right now. He is showing it. They had a hiccup early at Fontana and he still came back to have a good run and finish 12th. He could finally break out at Martinsville.
Denny Hamlin is cleared to race (he missed the Fontana race due to a piece of metal in his eye, which impaired his vision), and he is always strong at what's basically his home track. Tony Stewart likes these types of race tracks and he should be in contention like he was at the end at Fontana. This is a race track Kyle Larson will have to learn. I don’t think you can judge how good a driver Kyle is based on his result there. He has one start at Martinsville, where he finished 42nd last fall. If you look back at how Kyle is, he is always good at the places where you run at the top of the race track. Martinsville is one of the toughest places you go to in a Cup car.
Martinsville is going to be a test of the brakes, because you have this new low-riding car, so they are going to run faster. The cars have run faster everywhere they have been, so the brakes are really going to be key there. The cars are going to be running faster down the straightaway.
I really think you are going to see a lot of attrition due to drivers making moves on each other; driving into the corner a lot of harder, hitting each other. It ought to be an interesting race because it’s going to change throughout the day as to who is up front and who is not up front. That is because of the tire -- they did tire strategies there last year where some stayed out, some pitted, some didn’t pit.
One thing is for sure at Martinsville: It will be a totally different race than what the series has seen at Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol and Fontana. 500 laps around the paperclip at Martinsville is a lot of laps and it should be fun to watch.