Sliced Bread, Rowdy Busch look to break through against Big Three
MARTINSVILLE, VA. — The past decade at Martinsville Speedway has been dominated in large part by three drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon.
In fact, only three other drivers — Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick — have been to Victory Lane over the past 19 races at the Virginia short track.
Is there any reason to believe Sunday’s STP 500 will produce a different outcome?
Hamlin (second), Johnson (fourth) and Gordon (fifth) all start in the top five for the 500-lap showdown at the paperclip-shaped oval, and all three figure to be strong contenders for another grandfather clock trophy.
Then again, some other folks might have something to say about that.
Starting from the pole is Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who prior to Friday had never earned the top qualifying spot at Martinsville. Busch scored last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway to become the season’s fifth different winner in as many races, but has never come home a victor at Martinsville.
Will Sunday be his breakthrough?
"It would be nice, definitely," said Busch, who in 18 tries has never prevailed at Martinsville. "I’d love to take home a grandfather clock. I don’t have one of those yet. It’s been a track that I’ve been really close at. To finally close out the deal, you have to beat some good company — there’s always going to be guys that are fast. It’s just a matter of maybe out-smarting them or being the best of them at that given time come Lap 500."
Starting alongside Johnson on the inside of Row 2 is Team Penske driver Joey Logano, whose third-place qualifying effort is his best in 10 attempts at the mostly flat .526-mile track.
Logano has come up empty in 10 races at Martinsville, but finished second here in spring 2010 as a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. Like Busch, Logano would love to be the one who puts at least a temporary halt to the Martinsville reign of the big trio.
"I feel like our Shell/Pennzoil Ford has speed in it, obviously," Logano said. "I felt like we really had a shot at the pole, but, overall, I feel like for Sunday our car is decent. I think everyone is fighting forward drive, which eventually makes your entry really loose. That’s typical Martinsville practice. Your car is usually struggling for forward drive and then in the race it gets a little bit better as it rubbers in, but the track also loses a little bit of turn and gets a little tighter. So, far it’s typical Martinsville."
The rain cancellation of both of Saturday’s scheduled Sprint Cup practices could be a great equalizer on Sunday. Or it could just play right into the hands of Johnson, Hamlin and Gordon, who have combined to win 15 of the past 19 races here and undoubtedly didn’t need the practice time as much as others.
I’d love to take home a grandfather clock. I don’t have one of those yet.
"It seems like, I don’t know why, (but) when somebody sorts this place out, they’ve got it and you can hang on to it for a while," said Johnson, an eight-time Martinsville winner. "The 20 (Matt Kenseth) I think surprised us all last fall, so I would definitely put him in that expect-to-win category. The 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) has always been strong here. I’m surprised he hasnât had a shot at Victory Lane.
"The 5 (Kasey Kahne) has shown a lot of speed here. So I think there might be those — the 11 (Hamlin), the 48 (Johnson), the 24 (Gordon), at first thought, but not far behind there is a whole lineup of cars including the 4 (Kevin Harvick). He’s always been strong here, too. I can’t answer why only six guys in 19 races have been able to win here. It’s kind of interesting."
Gordon, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, has a theory — at least as far as the success of the Hendrick boys is concerned.
"Great race cars, great race teams," he said. "I think just the approach that we have had and that is built from having some success over the years. Hendrick has always given us great cars even from when I started coming here. I found something that worked for me and I have been able to go back to when I come here and not a lot has changed. I have mentioned that a lot of times, but this weekend there is the most drastic change I have seen in a long time because of the new ride-height rules.
"But for the most part, I think not a lot has changed as far as how you approach the way the cars are set up and how you drive the track since I first started coming here. It’s nice to have something that you have learned that has worked and can be a constant that you can come back with and make it work over and over again."
Hamlin, a Virginia native with four Martinsville wins, doesn’t anticipate there being a first-time Martinsville winner this weekend. Nor does he look for a Hendrick driver to come out on top.
Asked if he has room for another grandfather clock in his collection, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver made no bones about his intentions.
"I’m going to win it this weekend, I promise," he said.