Hendrick duo hungry for victory as Cup heads to Martinsville

Teammates Jimmie Johnson (left) and Jeff Gordon (right) both know how to win at Martinsville Speedway.

John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR

As losses go, last Sunday’s Auto Club 400 was about as big a kick in the teeth as Hendrick Motorsports could get.

Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was comfortably leading his teammate, Jeff Gordon, with seven laps to go at Auto Club Speedway when the left-front tire on Johnson’s Hendrick Chevrolet popped, handing the top spot to Gordon.

Gordon was cruising to an easy victory when a Clint Bowyer spin brought out a caution on what was supposed to be the penultimate lap. But when Gordon got a bad restart, it was Kyle Busch who got the victory, as Gordon finished 13th and Johnson 24th. With fellow Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12th and Kasey Kahne 41st, what looked like a Hendrick 1-2 turned out to be a disaster.

"That was a rough ride home Sunday night, probably as disappointed as I’ve ever been to have two cars so good and come away with nothing," team owner Rick Hendrick told the Associated Press.

The good news for Johnson and Gordon is that this week the team heads to Martinsville Speedway in southern Virginia, where the two have combined to win a remarkable 16 Sprint Cup races and lead 6,043 laps.

Last year at the 0.526-mile short track, Johnson won the spring race and finished second in the fall race, while Gordon won in the fall and was third in the spring.

With last week’s tough loss fresh in their minds and both men looking for their respective first victories of 2014, a visit to the paperclip-shaped Virginia track could be just what the doctor ordered.

And all four Hendrick drivers have a little bit of added incentive: This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the team’s first Sprint Cup victory, which occurred at Martinsville in 1984 when Geoffrey Bodine won for the team then known as All-Star Racing.

At the time, Hendrick was on the verge of closing the team down because he didn’t have enough sponsorship, but Bodine’s victory put the team on the right course.

The rest, as they say, is history. All told, Hendrick now has 219 Cup race victories and 11 Sprint Cup championships, more titles than any other professional U.S. sports team over the last 30 years.

In fact, since 1984, the second-most successful pro sports team is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won eight titles in the National Basketball Association. No other pro team has more than six championships in that period.

Green light: Hamlin receives medical clearance for Martinsville

Needless to say, the Hendrick crew is geared up to go for it again this weekend.

"Martinsville is one of those races on the schedule I always want to win," said Johnson, who has an average finish of 5.333 here. "Last year we had great runs at Martinsville, and it would be an honor to win there once again for Hendrick Motorsports."

Despite the track’s small size and relatively slow speed, it is extremely tricky to drive, according to Gordon.

"You have to be aggressive, but you have to be patient," said Gordon, who is third in points behind Carl Edwards and Earnhardt. "Martinsville has fairly long straightaways — at least for a half-mile track — with extremely flat, tight corners. You really want to roll into the corners, but it’s very easy to overdrive the entry and use too much brake. You also have to roll the center of the corners while getting traction up off (the corners). Even when you hit a lap perfectly, chances are you are dealing with traffic the very next lap since there are 42 other drivers on this tight track with you." 

One factor that might help Johnson and Gordon — not that they need any help here — is weather. With rain forecast for most of Friday and Saturday, practice time could be at a premium, which would play right into their hands. With more success than anyone else here, the Hendrick duo would likely be less affected by a reduction in practice time than their competition would be.