Martinsville Story Lines
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on March 30, 2014 | 6:39 A.M. EST
Jimmie Johnson (left) and Jeff Gordon have combined to win the last three Sprint Cup races at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)
MARTINSVILLE, Va. - They’ve battled, banged bumpers and bruised egos at Martinsville Speedway but few are better than Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at this track.
They each enter today’s STP 500 with eight wins at the historic half-mile speedway. Gordon won last fall and Johnson the two races before that. Johnson's average finish in the last 22 Martinsville races is 3.95; Gordon's average finish in the same time is 4.64.
They’ve often battled each other for the win at Martinsville. Gordon finished second to Johnson in the spring 2007 race and talked of how “upset” he was with his finish. When Johnson won this race a year ago, Gordon was third. In this race in 2012, they combined to lead 440 of the 515 laps.
Today, Johnson starts fourth and Gordon fifth.
Johnson says that for as good as Gordon is at Martinsville, he’s found a new trick.
“Jeff certainly still has his short-run speed, but he’s figured something out on the long run and runs a much different line,’’ Johnson said. “The last couple of times we’ve been here on the long haul, his car has been better than just about anybody. I’ve been the leader and watched him come and run me down.
“I don’t know if Jeff has consciously worked on changing from short run to long run or if it’s just circumstantial with car and tire and track. Fortunately, I can identify with it and try to make a change and try to protect myself.’’
Gordon says his success has been steady because the track has been consistent.
“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,’’ Gordon said. “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.”
Gordon and Johnson are just among the story lines in today’s race.
We’ve seen this before from Denny Hamlin. Two years ago, Hamlin stated on Twitter that he would win the fall New Hampshire race. He did. Hamlin vowed to win at Pocono in Aug. 2009, days after his grandmother’s death. He did.
So when Hamlin talks about winning races before the event, it’s best pay attention.
Friday, Hamlin punctuated a passionate press conference by saying: “I’m going to win ... I promise you that.’’
Hamlin last won at Martinsville in 2010, but he’s always run well at this track. Maybe his drought ends Sunday.
Drivers have to be aggressive on restarts at every track but they can be less patient at Martinsville. The inside line is the preferred line. Those on the outside will do all they can to get down as quick as possible. It could make for quite some action during the race.
Also, if the race goes to a green-white-checkered finish, being the leader might not be the best spot. The past two times there has been a green-white-checkered finish at Martinsville, the leader at that point did not win.
Danica Patrick surprised many by qualifying 10th after being 29th quick in Friday’s practice session. It’s her best starting spot since winning the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. She finished 12th in this race a year ago and was 17th in the fall race. Could she score a top-15 finish or better today?
Martinsville has one of the tightest pit roads on the circuit. It’s easy to make contact and often happens. Who will be slowed or suffer damage from such contact today?
Also, by winning the pole, Kyle Busch will have the stall near pit exit. That’s always provided an advantage. Eleven of the last 12 drivers who had that pit stall scored top-10 finishes and four won at Martinsville.