Martinsville preview: Watch out for Hamlin

If there’s a driver looking for revenge this weekend, it’s Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin completed just 192 laps at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last Saturday night but spent 54 of those circuits leading the parade at the point before his engine failed.

Suddenly, Hamlin found himself 11th in points following consecutive DNFs.

It’s not over

Johnson

It may look like nothing can keep Jimmie Johnson from a fourth straight title. But Jorge Mondaca actually found five potential pitfalls.

Certainly among the Chasers, Hamlin can afford to take chances. And with his take-no-prisoners attitude, Hamlin will be spoiler at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.

After all, it was Hamlin — not Jimmie Johnson — that led the most laps around the hairpin-shaped half-mile in March. Hamlin started eighth, took the point from Jeff Gordon on Lap 156 and led a total of 296 circuits throughout intervals in the race before Johnson dumped him in Turn 3 with 15 laps remaining in the race.

“He did a hell of a job saving it,” Johnson said.

Hamlin still salvaged a second-place finish but wasn’t too pleased with Johnson following the race. “He knew what was coming to him if I got back to him,” Hamlin said

Heck, Johnson was surprised that Hamlin got inside the No. 48 Chevrolet on the Lap 455 restart. But why should he be? Yes, Johnson has been the dominant driver at Martinsville with 14 top 10 finishes in his 15 career starts including six wins and two poles and an average finish of 5.3.

Hamlin, too, has finished all but one of his career Martinsville races in the top 10. In eight starts, Hamlin has posted one win, five top-five finishes and has an average finish of eighth. Hamlin should be feared. And given Johnson’s bump-and-run move on the No. 11 Toyota, he better watch his rearview mirror.

Hamlin hasn’t forgotten how he lost the lead.

“If I’m in the same situation I definitely will have that in the back of my mind and probably will do the same to him,” Hamlin said. “But there’s been a couple instances at the end of races, Loudon, New Hampshire, Chicago, where I’ve nudged Jimmie out of the way with a few laps to go to get a position or something, but it’s never really been for a race win.

“I’m not going to say that I owe him one or anything like that. But I’m going to race hard to try to get a win, especially in the situation that I’m in right now. I can afford to be a little bit more aggressive. And you know, just do everything I can.”

The only disadvantage Hamlin has is the caliber of his equipment — which has fueled his inconsistency. Although Hamlin has two wins and 11 top-five finishes this season, he also has nine finishes of 22nd or worse.

His record in the Chase is equally unpredictable. Hamlin has led laps in four of the five Chase races, posted two top-fives and three finishes of 22nd or worse.

“I feel like I know what it takes to win a championship,” Hamlin said. “This year is the best we’ve been as far as on-track performance and having a chance at the championship. For whatever reason we just can’t keep it together.

“Whether it’s the car or whatever, we’re trying. We’re doing everything we can to make sure every nut and bolt is tight on the car. Engines are reliable and all things like that. But it just seems for some reason something mechanically goes wrong each Chase for us.”

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Last season all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars qualified for the Chase. This season Hamlin — the veteran of the bunch — is the lone JGR representative. Hamlin is well aware that the entire program has to step up if he’s going to compete against Hendrick Motorsports on a regular basis. But without testing, Hamlin feels the organization is at a disadvantage.

“We need to sit down and talk about the things that we need to work on, and where those guys are beating us,” Hamlin said. “I definitely know where I’m getting beat, but that doesn’t always mean you can just necessarily fix that problem. It’s a long process to try to find five horsepower, or something of that nature, or make your bodies just a little bit better or your chassis a little bit better. That’s a long process.

“It takes a lot of testing to do that. With the testing restrictions that we do have, and the time restrictions that we have, we just don’t have a lot of time to R and D. Gibbs has done a good job of providing good race cars and cars that can compete for wins through the course of this year. That’s all I can ask for. The only thing I can ask for is a little bit more reliability.”