Gordon and Johnson are always favorites at Martinsville

Martinsville aka “the paper clip” is both challenging for the drivers and for the pit crews and while Gordon and Johnson are the favorites with Hamlin sidelined, one must remember that Martin is in the #11

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.

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Still, it's hard to look beyond the HMS tandem of Gordon to Johnson when it comes to Sprint Cup racing at Martinsville Speedway, especially with Hamlin eliminated from consideration. Johnson and Gordon have combined to win 11 of the last 20 races at Martinsville, with Hamlin claiming victory in four of the other nine, all coming since 2008.

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."

2013 Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2013 Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

The record isn't the only thing the teammates are racing for. They also want the opportunity to ring a bell. When a Hendrick driver gets a Sprint Cup win, he gets to ring a bell at the race shop the following Tuesday. With the tradition still relatively new. It's an experience Gordon's only gotten to enjoy once.

"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.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Eric Gilbert , Denny Hamlin , Mark Martin
Teams Stewart-Haas Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Michael Waltrip Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing
Article type Preview
Tags chevrolet, ford, gordon, hendrick, joe gibbs, johnson, martin, martinsville, toyota, virginia