Five things to watch in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Cramped confines, constant congestion and a crawling pace.

With the flat turns of its beloved paper clip-shaped layout, Martinsville Speedway is the most agonizingly easy track to deliver a terse message of rage during a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

It’ll be remarkably easy after Sunday’s STP 500, too.

The 133rd race at Martinsville in the Sprint Cup circuit will be the first since NASCAR changed its postrace parking policies this season. All cars now are stopped in the pits to raise the hood and remove the tapered spaces used to decrease horsepower.

That already helped engender confrontations at Daytona International Speedway between Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.

Those might pale when measured against the powder keg that could be ignited Sunday when 43 weary drivers exit their cars within swinging distance of each other after 500 laps of blood-boiling, patience-sapping madness at Martinsville.

At the 0.526 mile oval that is the shortest in NASCAR, it never is a matter of if tempers will flare – it’s whose, why and when.

“Contact is almost unavoidable at this racetrack,” Denny Hamlin said. “If you put us on a quarter-mile track, we’re probably going to have even more altercations with each other. It’s just the smaller the track, the more chances of that is going to be inevitable.”

Unlike the series’ most recent stop at Auto Club Speedway, which features multiple lanes for passing, there is only one preferred line around the track, and it’s navigated at an average speed around 95 mph that feels like a snail’s pace compared to the supersonic

As drivers fight to keep ill-handling cars glued to the bottom each lap, the pressure builds along with the knowledge that playing rough is tricky.

“You get mad at guys, but you have to understand that if you want to run over a guy 100 laps into the race, he is going to have 400 opportunities to get you back,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “You better have a damn good reason I guess to go pushing guys around.”

Said Logano, who will start on the pole Sunday: “There’s a lot of mistakes that happen and, even though it’s a mistake, it still makes you mad if you’re on the bad end of the deal. And then also it’s hard to pass, so then when you’re trying to pass someone for 20 laps, eventually you get frustrated and then that guy gives you the bumper, and it escalates from there.”

The vitriol extends beyond the drivers, too, leaving team members just as on edge.

“Every time somebody takes a swipe at your race car you get a little bit madder and a little bit madder,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. “It’s not just the guys inside the race car.”

That could make for an emotionally combustible atmosphere as drivers begin climbing out of their cars Sunday.

NASCAR rules preclude more than two crew members being present for the removal of the tapered spacer, so that could limit the potential for a fracas worthy of the Texas Motor Speedway brawl last November between the crews of Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon that resulted in the suspensions of four team members.

Some teams will be self-policing, though.

“I don’t think I have to remind my guys,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Gordon, said with a broad smile. “We are good on that.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Built to last: Through practice and qualifying, it’s been difficult to judge the impact from the reduction of 125 horsepower in this season’s engines. Drivers seem to be experimenting with shifting, though, and that could put some undue stress on engines and parts that isn’t normal for Martinsville.

A new gearing rules also could force drivers into relying more heavily on their brakes, but a brisk forecast (temperatures in the 40s are expected) could help negate overheating.

Burning rubber: There will be a two-fold focus on tires.

In a cost-saving measure, NASCAR is allowing teams one fewer set of tires at this race, which could wreak havoc on strategies if Sunday’s race turns into a caution-filled affair (Knaus said the No. 48 team used all 11 of its four-tire sets a year ago).

But there will be even more focus on Goodyears after the race, given that NASCAR confiscated four teams’ tires at Auto Club Speedway (and sent several for further investigation by an independent laboratory). With whispers of tire tampering lingering as the series’ hottest controversy, it seems likely NASCAR will seize more tires Sunday.

Denny’s day: Hamlin, a Chesterfield, Va., native, owned his home-state track from 2006-10 with four wins and eight top fives in nine races (the other finish was a sixth). But he has only one top five in the past seven starts as Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled to solve the short tracks.

With JGR and Toyota off to a slow start this season, Hamlin could use a triumphant return to winning form that would secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and allay myriad concerns for his team and manufacturer.

“It’s these tracks that you become a little more concerned with and are anxious for us to see where our program stands,” he said. “This is kind of a one-off race track that the driver can make up a little bit of a difference and that’s why you see the same drivers up front here really no matter what’s going on in their (teams). I’m very confident when we come here that this is one of those opportunities where you just need to seize as a race team. We should be in the mix.

“It’s been tough and it’s been a hard year for the organization and the manufacturer. Not that a win here would just satisfy all those needs – we still know that realistically we’ve got a lot of work to do — but it definitely would take a lot of pressure off because right now we’re all in that hornets’ nest.”

Perils of youth: The focus has been firmly on Chase Elliott and his Sprint Cup debut, but the 2014 Xfinity Series champion will be one of several newcomers at Martinsville. Jeb Burton, Brett Moffitt, Chris Buescher, Alex Kennedy and Matt DiBenedetto also are making their first starts here in a Sprint Cup car.

It could be a long afternoon particularly for DiBenedetto, who already drew the ire of Tony Stewart in practice.

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