Tuesday, March 29, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Martinsville Speedway welcome sight for Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin

The upshot of what happened at California over the weekend: Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville figures to be a meeting of the mad.

Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have combined to win the past nine races at the Henry County track. Both drivers left Fontana disappointed and no doubt eager to score a victory at the place that's been so good to them.

Let's begin with Johnson. The five-time defending Cup champion is off to a strong start this season, with three top-five finishes in five events. Still, he's yet to win, and his best chance evaporated last weekend when Kevin Harvick passed him on the final lap at California.

While Johnson seemed resigned to the fact that there was nothing more he could have done, it stings to come so close at a track where he runs so well. Two in a row like that -- if something similar were to happen at Martinsville -- would be even worse.

Meanwhile, Hamlin returns to his home state with troubles that are decidedly more severe. He led 15 laps early at California before engine problems sent him to the garage at lap 80, relegating him to a 39th-place finish.

Hamlin now has three finishes outside the top 20 (including two outside the top 30) and has fallen to 21st in points -- not exactly what anyone expected from a man who was an eyelash away from deposing Johnson last season.

Drivers lugging their frustrations to Martinsville is nothing new. From 2005-10, the craziness of Bristol always preceded the spring race at the .526-mile oval, roiling tempers and creating controversy.

While Hamlin and Johnson aren't sniping at each other, you can bet a final-lap duel would be feisty.

***

Congratulations to the bracket-thrashing Final Four of Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, Kentucky and Connecticut -- the survivors of a terrifically entertaining weekend.

Here's what I don't get, though: Whenever a VCU or Butler makes a run, we always hear people say that this reinforces the argument that the college basketball regular season is meaningless.

Does it really? If anything, it ENHANCES the significance of the regular season. If Butler doesn't beat Florida State in December, perhaps it's not in position to make this run. Likewise, if VCU doesn't knock off Drexel and Old Dominion in January, we're probably not talking about Shaka Smart as the hottest coach in America because he's probably not in the NCAAs.

Look. Clearly the college basketball season is less meaningful than that of almost every other sport (the NBA's is close). But it's only "meaningless" to those who know they're getting into the NCAA tournament before the season begins. There's plenty more teams who don't know that than do.

***

Thursday is opening day in baseball, a shining beacon in our lives, a signal that snow flurries are (just about) done with us. A few baseball predictions as the season gets set to open:

National League MVP: Prince Fielder, Brewers. A lot of factors set up well for the big guy. He's in the final year of his contract. Milwaukee should be a contender. And he's heading into his all important age-27 season -- the year stat heads have determined that the average player reaches his pinnacle numbers.

American League MVP: Robinson Cano, Yankees. Cano was 27 last year, and he broke out career highs in homers (29) and RBIs (109). He also hit .319, won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award and finished third in the AL MVP voting. Look for him to take that next step and get the big hardware.

Surprise team: Royals. Losing does have its benefits. In KC's case, it's a slew of high draft picks over the past few years -- and the organization has nailed a lot of them. That bumper crop, led by power-hitting third baseman Mike Moustakas, quickly is making its way toward the majors. Look for the club to improve as reinforcements arrive and make a run at .500 for the first time since 2003. Also, keep an eye out for Kila Ka'aihue, who's on the opening day roster. He's tearing it up this spring -- and turns 27 today.

Champion: Phillies. Even with a banged-up Chase Utley, these guys are so good that the regular season is almost meaningless to them. Almost.

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