The tallest of orders awaits at the shortest of tracks.
First-time visits to the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway rarely prove successful for even the biggest of talents. Rattle off the names, and then check out their debuts. Jimmie Johnson – now a seven-time winner at Martinsville – opened his Martinsville career with a 35th-place finish in 2002. Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart finished 20th in 1999. Kevin Harvick, finally a Martinsville winner in 2011, slogged to a 34th-place finish in his debut at the Virginia short track.
Among those who blossomed into NSCS stars, the latest and greatest example of immediate Martinsville success is Denny Hamlin, who finished eighth in his 2005 debut. It was a foreshadowing of Martinsville brilliance, as the Virginia native has four wins there. He’ll miss this weekend’s race while recovering from a back injury.
All that begs the question: How will Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick fare this Sunday. Because the NASCAR Nationwide Series has only raced at Martinsville once – 2006 – since 1994, neither Stenhouse nor Patrick has much competitive seat time there.
The two are tied atop the Sunoco rookie standings, each with 54 points. Stenhouse is currently 12th in the NSCS standings, in contention to become only the second rookie to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup (Hamlin is the only one thus far). If Patrick makes the field on Sunday, she’ll become the first female to start a race at Martinsville. Likewise, neither have much short-track experience to lean on in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Patrick has two Bristol starts with a best finish of 28th this season; Stenhouse’s lone short-track start resulted in a 16th at Bristol three weeks ago. Stenhouse did, however, tally three short-track wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, all at Iowa Speedway.