What to watch for The Martinsville events this season could have a markedly different look than in years past. With the Car of Tomorrow being used at both races, we'll see less action. The new front end could potentially create problems for cooling the brakes, which would be an unintended consequence of the new ride design.
Regardless, Martinsville belongs to Rick Hendrick. In the last 10 races, he has won a total of six trophies between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The 24 car is the overwhelming favorite, however, since Gordon has won seven times in Virginia. The DuPont team had season sweeps in 2003 and '05. Over the last four years, Gordon has top-10 finishes in all eight races (and six top 5s), including a runner-up to Tony Stewart in April last year. The win was Stewart's second trip to Victory Lane, after leading 179 laps to take the checkers in the fall of 2000.
Johnson won in October 2004 and '06, and he has nine consecutive lead-lap top-10 finishes on his Martinsville résumé.
Other noteworthy contenders include Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch. Although Junior has never won on the half-mile paperclip, he has been close with six top-5 finishes in his last 10 races. Busch won the October 2002 race but finished 11th and 27th in '06.
Bobby Labonte finished third last October and should be considered a dangerous sleeper.
Keep an eye on... Jeff Green -- Harold Holly and Green teamed up to post an eighth-place run in the fall last season. Green was brought up on short tracks and knows how to survive 500 laps at a place like this.
Denny Hamlin -- He's a risky pick based on the COT being used, but he adapted to the heavy Cup stocks last year, and he knows how to get around the place, as evidenced by his runner-up to Johnson in the fall event.
Kevin Harvick -- Harvick runs well at all the short tracks but has never won a Cup event at Martinsville. If he keeps the splitter intact, he could notch a good finish.
Casey Mears -- While not the circuit's best short tracker, Mears did run sixth here in the fall, and the Hendrick ponies will be a plus.