Monday, March 28, 2011

Martinsville Goody's Fast Relief 500 Preview: Gotta Be Either Hamlin or Johnson

By Micah Roberts

Hamlin is the driver to beat this week at Martinsville
We've had five races and five different winners thus far into the 2011 season and best of all for many NASCAR fans, Jimmie Johnson isn't one of the winners. However, we know it's coming soon and it could happen as soon as this weekend in Martinsville where he even has sicker numbers than he does for California.

However, unlike the race at Fontana, Johnson actually has a statistical equal at Martinsville in Denny Hamlin. Even though Johnson still is tops with six wins and a career average finish of 5.3 at Martinsville, Virginia native Hamlin has won the last three races in a row giving him a total of four in only 11 starts.

Hamlin's career average finish of 6.1 doesn't even tell his true story on the track because the number is drastically inflated by a 37th place finish in his rookie year. Outside of that race, he's gone on to finish sixth or better in nine straight races. Not even Johnson can match that run, but he comes close.

Johnson's successful run at Martinsville started in 2002, his rookie year, where he finished sixth. Since then, he's finished ninth or better in every race. That's an amazing streak of top level consistency for 17 consecutive races, which is unheard of run.

As great as a driver as Johnson is, he's still been able to avoid all the little things that plague other teams every so often; what about engine failures, tires going down, pit issues, getting tangled in other peoples errors? None of that seems to plague Johnson, or Hamlin, at Martinsville.

It's about as close to a lock that there is in NASCAR with these two at Martinsville which is why the odds for each will be considerably lower for this track than at the others.

However, there are some concerns with Hamlin based on last week where both he and teammate Joey Logano experienced engine problems. Logano's issue was found before the race and they made an engine change, but Hamlin's played out on the track and led to a 39th place finish dropping him four positions in season points to 21st.

"For some reason, our stuff is just struggling to keep it all together," Hamlin said after his race was finished Sunday. "I don't know why. I don't know what's changed in the off season. I think we're just having some part failures."

Chances are Martinsville will be just what the car doctor ordered for Hamlin's team to get them back in a groove. Hamlin will also have other interests to inspire him as well with the improbable VCU basketball squad from his home state making the Final Four.

Gordon is a nice candidate to upset Hamlin and Johnson
If daring to wager on someone else other than Johnson or Hamlin this week, you should begin with Jeff Gordon who swept the 2003 and 2005 season at Martinsville. From 2005 to the spring race last year, Gordon finished in the top-five for 11 straight races.

Tony Stewart is one of the few to capture a Martinsville win over the last decade having done so in 2006 while racing for Joe Gibbs. He came out strong with own team in the 2009 spring race finishing third, but hasn't been able to better the run in his last three starts.

It's surprising to see that a driver like Kyle Busch has never won at Martinsville since he's been so good on the other small tracks throughout his career. In 12 career starts, Busch has a best finish of fourth which he's matched three other times.

A wild card for this race could be Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has always run well at Martinsville. But it's not his past that makes him a candidate, it's the present day situation that has him 12th in points after five races. Sharing garages with Jimmie Johnson this season has obviously helped change something for the No. 88 even if it's nothing more than smelling the winning aroma of five championship trophies.

Top 5 Finish Predictions:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (4/1)
2) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (30/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (9/2)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (7/1)

Quite Impressed With JJ
Outstanding team effort by Johnson at Fontana last week
Last week in California, Johnson showed everyone why the No. 48 team is so good. They took a new car, didn't practice very well and then went basically unnoticed throughout the race. But as the laps remaining began to decrease, so did Johnson's gap to the leader. He reeled in then leader Kyle Busch, who had dominated the race all day while leading the most laps, and then passed him. If it hadn't of been for fellow Californian Kevin Harvick on the last lap, Johnson would again be celebrating in victory lane.

I'm not sure if I've ever been so in awe of a driver finishing second in a race before. There was nothing there to suggest Johnson might be in that position at the end other than his pedigree where the cream always rises to the top. In Johnson, and his team's case, there is no one better. Carl Edwards may win the Championship this season and stop Johnson's consecutive streak at five, but when Johnson's career is over, we probably will all agree, or argue, that he is the best ever to drive a stock car.

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