By Micah Roberts
Johnson has a 41 point lead over Denny Hamlin (5/2), 77 point lead over Kevin Harvick (7/1), 156 point over Jeff Gordon (25/1), and 177 point lead over both Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart (25/1). If looking for the point deficits to shrink this week at Martinsville, you’re likely to be disappointed because the half-mile flat track of Martinsville is one place where Johnson does not falter.
Johnson hasn’t finished outside the top-10 at Martinsville since his first race ever during his rookie year of 2002 when he finished 35th. Since then he’s accumulated six wins and six other top-five finishes, a resume that stands alone among all others.
However, there is some window of hope with the likes of Gordon and Hamlin. Gordon hasn’t finished outside the top-five at Martinsville since his ninth-place run in 2004. Hamlin has won the last two in a row and three of the last five at Martinsville. Each will have to mimic their regular ways this week and hope that Johnson experiences some issues in order to gain some ground.
Gordon’s in the same boat as Hamlin for the next two races. Gordon was in position to win earlier this year at Martinsville, but got beat on the restart by Hamlin during the final green-white-checker finish. At this stage, it’s all or nothing for Gordon as the races slip away.
Harvick’s strategy this week will be to get a top-10 finish and attempt to make his giant leap next week at Talladega where he won earlier this year. Despite growing up on short tracks, Martinsville has always been a thorn in Harvick’s side. He’s raced twice a year there since 2001 and doesn’t have one top-five finish to his credit. His 35th-place finish there earlier this season was his worst finish of the year.
Stewart has always been quite accomplished at Martinsville, but most of his success -- including two wins -- came with Joe Gibbs. With his new team he has a third-place finish to his credit, but hasn’t been at the level of Johnson, Hamlin and Gordon. Same thing for Kyle Busch who had most of his Martinsville success with Hendrick Motorsports. In his last five Martinsville starts he’s finished better than 22nd only once.
Martinsville used to be a place that long shots won regularly, but that was before Johnson and Hamlin came onto the scene where the two drivers have combined to win the last eight races in a row. Stewart was the last other than them to win in 2006 with Gordon sweeping the 2005 season.
The only long shot I could feel good about betting on would be Ryan Newman in the 20 to 1 range. He has actually competed very well with the same goods that Stewart has over the last two seasons. Jeff Burton, another Virginian like Hamlin, ran very well in the March race and could be considered a candidate as well.
Early Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (4/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (4/1)
4) #39 Ryan Newman (20/1)
5) #31 Jeff Burton (16/1)