Amanda Vincent, NASCAR correspondent
When it comes to picking a favorite or two, or maybe even three, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, this weekend for the Sunday running of the Goody's Fast Relief 500, a handful of drivers have statistics that kind of jump off the page when compared to the stats of their fellow competitors.
Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and Hendrick Motorsports wheel men, Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet and Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet, have combined to claim victory in 14 of the most recent 18 races at the Virginia short track. As-a-matter-of-fact Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, is the only other driver to score multiple Sprint Cup wins at the track since 2002.
Of the four aforementioned drivers, Hamlin's dominance at the track, that just happens to be in his home state, has been the most recent. The Chesterfield, Va., native won both Sprint Cup events at Martinsville in 2010, and overall, he has four wins there, all coming since March 2008. That's four wins in eight races, heading into Sunday's Goody's Fast Relief 500.
"I think we have a great chance to get back to victory lane at Martinsville," Hamlin said. "We have always been strong there and hopefully will be again this weekend."
Martinsville wins by Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, and Stewart last season are the only wins by someone other than Hamlin or Johnson since Stewart's first win at the track in April 2006. Gordon does lead all active drivers with seven Martinsville Speedway victories, but his wins were spread out over more seasons and the last of those wins came back in 2005.
Gordon isn't worried that he hasn't lost that touch when it comes to success at Martinsville, though. After all, despite all the changes in the sport in recent years, one thing that hasn't changed is Martinsville Speedway.
"The one place on the schedule that has changed the least is Martinsville," Gordon said. "I believe the track, the setups and the tires have changed the least here compared to other tracks over the course of 20 seasons, and that's where experience can really pay off."
Johnson is just behind Gordon on the Martinsville win list with six trips to victory lane. His last win there was in March 2009, before Hamlin went on a streak of three-consecutive wins at Martinsville.
"I do have a lot of success at Martinsville, but it took me a few tries to get it right," Johnson said. "And since then, it's been a very good track for me. I certainly want to get back to my winner ways there."
Of the three most dominant drivers at Martinsville -- Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon -- Hamlin and Johnson head into this weekend's event in the best shape, points-wise. Both are in the top-10, with Hamlin in seventh spot and Johnson in ninth.
Gordon, meanwhile, has already dug himself a rather deep hole early in the season. He heads into the weekend, 25th in points, some 91 points behind leader Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
Johnson, and then Hamlin after him, may have replaced Gordon in the area of Martinsville mastery in recent years, but getting back on the right track and turning the 2012 season around is a more urgent task for the four-time series champion. Hamlin and Johnson may have replaced the seasoned veterans atop the scoring pylon at Martinsville, but they probably don't have that same motivating feeling of urgency heading into Sunday's race.
Meanwhile, Harvick and Stewart have both shown that your last name doesn't have to be Hamlin, Johnson or Gordon to pull into victory lane at Martinsville Speedway, with each making appearances there last year. But it, obviously, doesn't hurt.
"You can have it (success at Martinsville), for sure," Stewart said. "It's knowing that feel. It's finding that combination that works, and the next time you come back to that track, you know what that feel is like, and you know what you're looking for in practice for it to be good in the race. During the race, the track changes quite a bit, but you know when you kind of have that rhythm.