Johnson, Hamlin have edge Sunday

Jimmie Johnson exudes quiet confidence. He knows this could be the weekend when he returns to familiar ground – leading the standings in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Denny Hamlin, too, feels the potential for a big gain looming.

After all, these two men own Martinsville Speedway.

They have won nine of the last 12 races at the track. They bring the two best average finishes here.

Twice a year they lead laps and challenge for the victory on this .526-mile Virginia track. Why should Sunday be any different?

Adding to the confidence level of each is the fact that current points leader Brad Keselowski does not enjoy that level of success — and is already struggling at the track this weekend.

And his closest challengers in the Chase certainly know that.

Johnson, who sits just seven points behind Keselowski in second in the championship race, enters Sunday with an average finish of 5.762 and six wins at the track. Keselowski doesn’t even have six Cup starts here yet – and he certainly doesn’t have a victory.

Hamlin, who rides 20 points behind Keselowski, brings an average finish of 6.429 to the track. Hamlin has four wins at the track and has started from the pole position twice.

Keselowski, meanwhile, has just two top 10s and an average finish of 13.4.

That trend continued Friday when Johnson qualified on the pole, Hamlin fifth – and Keselowski 32nd.

For his part, Keselowski shrugged off his starting spot.

“I don’t enjoy qualifying like crap,” Keselowski said. “That’s not what I come to the racetrack to do, but it’s been the course as of late. You take solace in the fact that the part that matters, the actual racing, my team has done a great job preparing excellent cars and executing on all levels and you try to focus on what you have that’s going right and that’s what we have that’s going right.”

Johnson said that he doesn’t want to let his guard down just because he’s starting from the pole position, but clearly this much of an advantage in starting position has to give him a lift. While the setup will be different for Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500, the fact is that Johnson has a proven history of top performances here – and now has an added advantage.

Still, he’s cautious in addressing that.

“I started 22nd here in the spring and ended up racing for the win and had a great shot for it,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to count them out. I think it would be foolish for me to sit here and think they’re going to be in harm’s way back there and not be able to race their way through. Brad’s doing a great job in learning and becoming faster every track he goes to. With strategy, if there is an opportunity, (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe is) not going to let that opportunity slide by.

“So I’m not counting them out. They’re going to have a tough time on pit road with that pick, initial track position is going to be a problem, but I as a competitor have to expect the most out of these guys I’m racing for the championship with. We see it … when it gets playoff time, things happen. I don’t want to put my guard down.”

Hamlin is probably in the same spot – and has even boosted his level of experience at Martinsville this weekend, logging additional laps as he is participating in the Camping World Truck Series activities this weekend.

He understands the impact Martinsville could have on his title dreams.

“In my mind, when we come here we’re very optimistic,” he said. “This is a place that we look … we need to win at to put ourselves back in the hunt. So that’s the mentality that we have … We know this is a very important weekend. If we’re going to win a title, in the end, it’s got to run through Martinsville.”

Johnson says that he didn’t always find mastering Martinsville to be an easy task. But he has it under control this week.

Not only that, he’s coming off a race where he and his crew made a major save in terms of staying alive in the Chase. Johnson spun last week at Kansas, losing significant ground – then more as his crew worked to make repairs on the car. In the end, though, the team got the car back into shape, Johnson got back onto the track and he managed to finish just one position behind Keselowski.

If he ends up as champion, that moment can certainly be a key achievement he points to as saving his run.

“On one (hand), I look at it and think I made a mistake and gave up points,” Johnson said. “I really felt like we could have won the race. It was a day that Brad (Keselowski) wasn’t leading and running in the top two or three and we could have closed the points up if not got ahead. I hope it’s a story that we preserved the championship, minimized the damage, and minimized the loss.

At the same time, I still regret that I didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.”

Don’t expect a similar situation this weekend.

Johnson knows this is his shot to strike. He doesn’t plan to squander it.

While he tries to stay focused on his own effort, he can’t help but realize just how much he could gain this weekend.

“I try to stay focused on my record and my team. But there is a part of my mind that thinks of strengths and weaknesses of the other drivers,” he said. “… But coming here, the way we’re sitting in points, I would hope to get a handful of points on the No. 2 car (of Keselowski). And at the same time, Denny, I got a few points on him last week so if I gave up a few it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. And I really think going down the stretch, it’s going to be a game of a few points at a time. That’s just the way my mindset is.”