When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway as it will this weekend for Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500, it's not hard to pick out a few favorites. Drivers at the top of the list include Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet and Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevy and Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Hamlin can be crossed off the list this time around, though, as he's sidelined from injuries sustained in the race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on March 24. Mark Martin is slated to drive the No. 11 at Martinsville in Hamlin's absence.
That leaves Gordon and Johnson as runaway favorites to claim yet another grandfather clock (the trophy awarded to race winners at Martinsville). That's not to say that other drivers don't stand a chance at driving into Martinsville victory lane. Ryan Newman was able to take his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to victory lane at the track just last year, as a matter-of-fact.
Both Hendrick drivers looked to be in position to contend for the race win a year ago, restarting first and second in the final laps. But it wasn't to be. Instead, an incident involving the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota enabled to Newman to get to the front and take the win.
Gordon's success at Martinsville stretches beyond the win column, even though his seven trips to victory lane are impressive. The four-time Cup champion has 40-career starts at Martinsville under his belt, and despite racing so many times at the short track, he has yet to post a Martinsville DNF. Just slightly less rare is to find Gordon outside the top-10 of the Martinsville finishing order. He's only finished outside the top-10 eight times in those 40 previous starts.
Considering his success over the years at Martinsville, Gordon probably knows what he's talking about when he mentions the keys to winning there.
"Qualifying well here definitely helps, and getting that first pit stall is an advantage on pit road," said Gordon. "During the race, though, it's all about 'rhythm.' You try to get into a rhythm quickly to just knock off consistent lap after consistent lap. But traffic - which you encounter a lot of here - can disrupt that quickly. When you're around other cars, you have to change your line and change what you're doing in order to make a pass. It's important to jump right back into that rhythm that you had."
Gordon is, indeed, impressive at Martinsville, but Johnson may have just a slight edge, if past statistics are any indication. Johnson's win record at Martinsville Speedway mirrors his teammate's, with seven of his own trips to victory lane. But those victories have come in just over half the number of starts -- 22. Johnson is the most recent Martinsville race winner, claiming victory at the track during the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup NASCAR postseason.
"Once I figured out how to drive it – and, frankly, once Tony Stewart lapped me there in my sophomore year – it just made sense how to drive the track and I’ve had it ever since," Johnson said. "From my first year at Martinsville, I never thought I’d have a stat to take down, let alone a stat that I’d ever have a chance to take down."
"I savor wins - probably more so today than ever," said Gordon. "And prior to last year, I hadn't rung the bell before so it was a new experience for me. My kids came to the shop to be a part of it, as well. The bell is so loud that they have to wear headsets, but they really seemed to enjoy being part of the experience. Everybody gets something after they ring the bell and my daughter loved handing out stickers to everyone. It's become a really cool tradition - one the whole organization has rallied around."
Gordon and Johnson lead the way among active drivers when it comes to wins at Martinsville. A win by either on Sunday would give that driver sole possession of that claim.
There are several other drivers who look poised for a win and could get it done come Martinsville on Sunday, but it is hard to look past Gordon and Johnson in Hamlin's absence.