Another year has passed, and another West Coast Swing is in the books. The 2015 edition NASCAR’s annual early-season excursion out West produced a litany of storylines that will serve as the bedrock for the rest of the 2015 season’s plot. Kevin Harvick has emerged as the clear favorite for the title, while teammate Kurt Busch has emerged as the ultimate underdog capable of knocking Harvick off his throne. Everything from debris and sub drivers to rules changes has made news over the past three weeks, culminating in what has been a truly unusual start to the year.
Now, the series heads to Martinsville Speedway, a track high on drama and known for producing storylines. Last year’s spring Martinsville event was a wild affair, with a record number of lead changes and a dizzying number of cautions. Will the series see yet another topsy-turvy race on NASCAR’s tiniest track. Read on and find out.
1. Can Kurt Busch finally cash in?
In what has been perhaps the most unlikely story of the year, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Busch has emerged as a legitimate threat to win the championship despite missing a whopping three races to start the year. Busch, who was suspended for the early portion of the season, has come flying out of the gate in his 2015 return, posting top-three runs in each race he has participated in and leading countless laps in the process.
Generally speaking, drivers usually take awhile to bounce back after an absence from being in the car. Not in Busch’s case. The man has been a driver possessed, displaying speed that was entirely absent in his middling 2014 season. Busch has been so good that he has already climbed to 28th in the standings, comfortably within the Chase cutoff range. Thus, despite missing three races, a win would virtually lock Busch into the Chase.
Oh, and did we mention that Martinsville is this Sunday, you know, the track at which Busch scored his lone 2014 victory? It is entirely possible, and perhaps even somewhat likely, that Busch will cash in on Sunday, effectively making him a lock for the Chase despite only participating in three out of the first six races of 2015. That’d be a bit of story, eh?
2. Will Sunday’s race live up to the standard set by last year’s running?
Last year’s spring Martinsville race was easily one of the finest races of the 2014 season. That is quite a statement, given the fact that the 2014 season was packed to the brim with quality, memorable races filled with lots of excitement. But Martinsville simply stood above the rest. Last year’s race featured 33 lead changes, a number that is simply unheard of on short tracks at this level. It was a ferociously competitive affair and a true testament to the Gen-6 car’s short-track package that, despite not receiving much press, has been an absolute boon to the racing product on such tracks. (Hint: NASCAR should visit more of these tracks.)
The added grip overall aero-platform of the Gen-6 car is a perfect match for tracks like Martinsville and Bristol, and the racing on such tracks shows it. Nearly every short track race in the Gen-6 era on these two tracks has been wildly exciting, and I am not expecting that to change on Sunday. With even more tire wear expected on Sunday and plenty of cautions expected to fly, lead changes will be aplenty. And of course, with the driver being more important at Martinsville than at other tracks, you can expect the SHR cars to have far less of a mechanical advantage than they’ve had at other tracks thus far in 2015, opening the front of the field up to a wider range of contenders.
All told, expect a typical Martinsville race on Sunday. And trust me, that’s a good thing.
3. Will debris cautions continue to create suspicion of foul play?
Let me just start this one off by saying that I do not subscribe to the theory that NASCAR throws debris cautions when nothing is actually on the track simply to tighten up the field. Sorry to all of my followers who fall under the NASCAR Hypercritic banner, but I just do not believe such conspiratorial activity is actually occurring.
Rather, I am of the belief that NASCAR has simply become far too cautious when it comes to debris, and has become far too reliant on spotters who often milk the booth for debris cautions late in races and deep into long green runs. Inconsistency is the problem here folks, not conspiracy or whatever whacked-out reason the internet community has conjured up in the past week after the Auto Club Speedway late-race debris caution debacle.
With all of this in mind, I think you can fully expect to see at least one or two questionable debris calls in Sunday’s race, even after everything that has happened? Why is this? The answer is simple: NASCAR has become hyper-cautious about all things safety in recent years, debris included. I do not think that is going to change just because a few faceless folks on the internet were crying “conspiracy” last week.
I am not a fan of inconsistent debris calls, but I am also not naive enough to believe they are simply going to go away just because fans cried foul a week ago. Expect a few of them on Sunday.
4. Will Jeff Gordon resuscitate his lifeless 2015 season?
Does anyone remember that Jeff Gordon guy? You know, the one who is retiring at the end of this season? The guy who was kind of the biggest story entering 2015? Yeah, remember him?
You’d be forgiven if you forgot that Four-Time was actually on-track this year. Aside from a strong mid-race run in the Daytona 500, Gordon’s presence at the front of the field has largely been absent in 2015, and his retirement story has long been forgotten in the wake of more recent news surrounding the brothers Busch. Put simply, Gordon’s lack of performance thus far has allowed him to fall through the cracks of the popular NASCAR zeitgeist, and one is left to wonder if he’ll ever be more than a 12th-place car in his last season on the circuit.
Luckily for Gordon, Martinsville just so happens to be his best track, and without question is his best shot at getting a win this season. No matter how good or bad Gordon or his cars are in a given year, the man always shows up at Martinsville, without fail. I am fully expecting him to contend in a major way on Sunday afternoon. If he doesn’t do so at what is unquestionably his best racetrack, then… oh boy, Gordon fans could be in for a long 2015 season. He’s one to keep an eye on this Sunday.
Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 STP 500
This year on Four Burning Questions, I will share my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!
- Brett Moffitt ($8.00) – You won’t find a better value out there (well… except for maybe David Ragan). Moffitt is a capable driver in excellent equipment, and he’ll free up cash for you to spend on the big dogs.
- David Ragan ($9.00) – See: Moffitt, Brett.
- Jimmie Johnson ($27.00) – He’s money at Martinsville and will likely be hungry to bounce back after a lackluster performance at Auto Club.
- Jeff Gordon ($27.00) – He’s currently overvalued at the moment, but the way we’ve built this team, we have the extra cash for him. He’s a legend at Martinsville and likely sees this race as his best chance to nab a Chase spot.
- Denny Hamlin ($25.50) – When he’s on, he’s the best short-track racer in NASCAR, period. My guess is that he’ll be on on Sunday.