Sunday, October 24, 2010
8 races, 2 winners at Martinsville Speedway
Want a NASCAR rivalry? Look no further than the on-track battles here between Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.
JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times
Denny Hamlin waits at his car as qualifying begins at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin won the pole for the race with a lap at 97.018 mph Friday, holding off Marcos Ambrose.
The Roanoke Times
File 2009 Denny Hamlin leads Jimmy Johnson in the closing laps of the 2009 TUMS Fast Relief 500 in Martinsville. Hamlin won the race.
JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times
Jimmie Johnson talks with a member of his crew while waiting for qualifying to begin. Johnson, who has won four straight series titles, qualified 19th-fastest.
Auto Racing stories
- Crash doesn't rattle NASCAR rookie
- NASCAR notebook: Lawsuit is considered after wreck injures fans
- Johnson wins 1 for his crew chief
- Johnson steals Daytona thunder
- Auto racing archive
MARTINSVILLE -- For a sport that many fans say lacks a much-needed rivalry, what do you say about Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway?
Sure, their duel isn't littered with catchphrases or one-liners that Darrell Waltrip might have used and lacks the white-hot intensity Dale Earnhardt could add. But for on-track action -- and isn't that what fans want? -- Johnson vs. Hamlin nears historic proportions.
No one beside Johnson or Hamlin has won at Martinsville in the track's last eight races. Should either win today, it would match the longest stretch in track history where two drivers reigned. Richard Petty (seven wins) and Bobby Isaac (two) dominated from 1968-72.
With TV ratings cascading and questions about the sport's health -- let alone Richard Petty Motorsports -- growing, Johnson and Hamlin can, if nothing else, take fans back to an earlier time. When rivalries flourished.
"There needs to be some more rivalries out there," Gordon said when asked recently about the sport's TV ratings. "I just think it's important to have rivalries. I don't think it's anything about Jimmie Johnson. It's just nobody has rivaled him."
Except at Martinsville.
What was once Gordon's track, became Johnson's track and now is ruled by Hamlin. He's won the last two Sprint Cup races here and three of the last five.
Johnson's composed demeanor hides any signs that he's ruffled by Hamlin's success, but he admits "I'd by lying if I said that if Denny wins, I wouldn't be like "(darn), Denny won."
Johnson then adds that he'd feel that way if any of the title contenders won "because of what's on the line."
The points race adds to this matchup. Johnson leads Hamlin by 41 points with fives races left. How big is that advantage? In the spring race, Hamlin won and outscored Johnson, who placed ninth, by 57 points. Johnson notes that they were experimenting that day and found some things not to do this time.
Maybe the pair can repeat their performance in this race a year ago. Hamlin won, Johnson finished second. They ran first or second 40 percent of the race. That day, Johnson couldn't get close enough to challenge as he had before.
Had he been closer, it could have created the excitement they generated in last year's spring race. Hamlin led Johnson when Johnson dived inside Hamlin with 16 laps to go.
"It was my only opportunity," Johnson said. "He got off of turn 2 bad. When we got in there (in turn 3), we were both max brakes. He committed to the bottom and I was there."
They hit. Hamlin's car moved up the track. Johnson took the lead and went on to win.
Hamlin hinted at payback that day. Might it come today?
"Would I move him out of the way?" Hamlin said this week. "I probably would this time around simply because I need those five, 10 points at this point in the season.
"If I were in his shoes, would I move me, knowing I have a (41)-point lead, if I was him? I probably wouldn't move me because the consequences are, if you [tick] me off, I might spin you and then you lose all your point lead and now you're behind. I think that's what the advantage I have this weekend is that I have to go out there and race offensively and I honestly feel he has to race defensively."
Should they be together at the end -- three of the last eight times they've finished first and second in this race -- it will be interesting to see how they race one another.
Of course if they're up front, it reduces the chances for others to win. So how to beat them?
"I think the rest of us need to wreck them on the first lap," Clint Bowyer said, with a smile, of how to defeat Hamlin and Johnson.
It won't be easy. You've got to catch them.
Hamlin and Johnson have been so dominant that only four other drivers -- Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte -- have led in the final 100 laps of any of the track's last eight races.
"Every time I've gotten beat by him, we go and debrief the following week and we talk about when we go back to Martinsville what do we need to do," Hamlin said. "I base it off "[Johnson] was beating me here, he was beating me here and he was beating me here, those are the areas we need to work.'
"I guarantee it works the other way. He maybe sees my car come off the corner a little bit better, maybe turns a little bit better. He relays all that information to his crew chief.
"When you have two guys that are so good at one track and they continue to run 1-2 and have to race around each other all the time, we're just making each other better."
And building a rivalry. At least at Martinsville.