Hamlin and Johnson have Martinsville figured out
Could it really be that two guys are that much superior, and the 41 others have no chance at winning on NASCAR’s oldest active track?
Nope, insisted Johnson. The secret to winning at Martinsville is nothing more than accepting the 0.526-mile paper clip-shaped track as it is and not trying anything fancy.
“There’s one way to drive this place and that’s it,” said Johnson, a six-time Martinsville winner.
Richard Petty is the all-time wins leader at Martinsville with 15 victories, followed by Darrell Waltrip with 11. Then came the heyday of Rusty Wallace, and then Jeff Gordon, with seven wins apiece.
But only two drivers have mastered Martinsville since 2006, when Johnson began a run that lasted until Hamlin caught him. Hamlin is a four-time Martinsville winner, including the last three visits to his home state.
Johnson credits that domination to the two of them knowing exactly what to do from the moment their car hits the track in Friday’s first practice.
“A lot of tracks have a lot of other options, but there’s one very specific line you have to run and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years,” Johnson said. “That’s what Denny has been able to do, and what we’ve been able to do and Jeff has done. So I really think it falls into that category.
“You go to a big track and there are three or four lanes to run on, you can move around and find somewhere that works for your setup if you missed it, (and) for your own driving style. That’s not the case here.”
Hamlin didn’t disagree about what it takes to win at Martinsville, and that he and Johnson have been the only two drivers of late to get in on the secret.
“I just think that we have got something figured out that really no one else has figured out at this point,” Hamlin said. “That’s all you can really pinpoint it, because the competition is so close. Each and every week, even qualifying, everyone runs essentially the same speed once they kind of get it all ironed out.”
Hamlin has had Martinsville figured out since his rookie season. He’s got 10 top-10s in 11 career starts, with his only blemish a 2006 crash that led to a 37th-place finish in his second race here.
His first win came two years later, and the track has since been the place where Hamlin starts his move toward the front of the Sprint Cup standings. Off to a slow start last year, when he was widely picked to win the championship, he targeted Martinsville as where he’d heat up.
Instead, he announced he’d be undergoing knee surgery the day after the race, which was rescheduled to Monday because of rain. With most everyone writing off Hamlin’s chances for the race win and the championship, he instead bulldozed his way through the field on a final restart to grab his first victory of the season.
From there, Hamlin weathered the knee surgery, won eight races and finished second to Johnson in the championship race.
Hamlin needs a repeat performance this Sunday. The engine woes that have plagued Joe Gibbs Racing through the first five races of the year hit Hamlin hard last week at California, when his failed midway through the race. His 39th-place finish cost him four spots in the standings, and he goes into Sunday ranked a disappointing 21st.
But he won’t be concerned about his position unless Sunday is a bust for him.
“Martinsville spring race always seems to be the springboard for our season,” he said. “Whenever we have struggles for the first five races or so, Martinsville falls that fifth or sixth race of the season for us, and that’s when we hit our momentum.
“We’re looking to (Martinsville) to be the one that kind of sets our season in motion. Hopefully it’s no different this year.”