Martinsville: Series round six preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Martinsville Johnson Has Bulls-Eye On His Back; Rivals Taking Aim It's starting to sound as if this Jimmie Johnson stuff is wearing a bit thin, with some of his rivals in the NASCAR Sprint Cup ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes - Martinsville

Johnson Has Bulls-Eye On His Back; Rivals Taking Aim

It's starting to sound as if this Jimmie Johnson stuff is wearing a bit thin, with some of his rivals in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

That's not to imply there's a lack of respect or appreciation for the unbelievable run by Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), who has won a record four consecutive series championships.

But there clearly seems to be an undercurrent of, shall we say, impatience, regarding the possible ending of Johnson's dominance.

Several weeks ago, current series points leader Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet), after finishing second to Johnson, boldly declared that his car was capable of "running with the 48." Johnson's team, Harvick added, was well aware of the impending challenge.

Then, this past Sunday at Bristol, third-place finisher Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) lamented the familiar sight of Johnson heading to Victory Lane, and mentioned what he perceived as good, old-fashioned luck aiding the champion's cause.

As if a four-time defending champion needs any luck.

"I would rather lose to any of other 41 cars out there, than the 48 car," Busch said.

"We saw the 48 was going to be the car to beat (at Bristol). They are every week. It's up to the best of us to knock him off the top. So it's rough.

"You know, they've won three times this year. Not that we need to deserve to win, it's just that they are winning every chance they're given. We have just need to position ourselves more to get those wins."

Of course, there's an old adage that says 'you make your own luck.'

Johnson is perfectly capable of doing just that.

Especially at Martinsville Speedway, site of the series' next race, the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 coming up Sunday. Johnson has won six times at Martinsville's historic .526-mile oval, a total accumulated over the last 11 races there.

That's not exactly great news for the rest of the field. Neither is the fact that Johnson's three victories thus far this season give him a potential 30 "bonus points" with which to start the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR's 10-race "playoffs" that determine the series champion.

Johnson's victory at Bristol was his first at that .533-mile short-track stadium -- a surprising statistic considering his success at Martinsville, the second half of this early-season "short-track doubleheader."

Bristol also was his 50th victory overall in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, tying him with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 10th on the all-time list.

"I've watched from afar before I was in the sport and people would say, 'Anybody but the 3, Anybody but the 24,' " Johnson said.

"I'm awfully proud to be in that category where they're saying, 'Anybody but the 48.'

"I think it's awesome."

Earnhardt Up To 8th, Making Resurgence Look Like The Real Deal

For the first few weeks of this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet) was comfortably inside the top 20 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points.

For a sport eager to have its most popular driver also be one of its most competitive, it was good news.

The good news has gotten better and made fans' weekly "Jr. Watch" worth watching.

Earnhardt comes into Martinsville eighth in the series standings, after a steady run at Bristol produced a seventh-place finish -- Earnhardt's second top 10 of the season and his first since finishing second in the Daytona 500.

Good news? This is huge news in the Earnhardt camp. The last time he was in the standings' top 12 was at the end of 2008, when he finished last in the 12-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The highest Earnhardt got in points last year was 15th.

"[Crew chief] Lance [McGrew] and Dale have great chemistry," said Earnhardt's car owner, Rick Hendrick. "I think if you listen to them on the radio, they're working well together.

"That team is really coming together. We've made a lot of progress there."

Earnhardt has never won at Martinsville Speedway but his career statistics at the tricky half-mile seem to indicate he will, eventually.

Start with Driver Rating. Earnhardt's Martinsville rating is a very respectable 98.8, fifth-best in the series.

He has eight top fives and 10 top 10s in his 20 Martinsville starts.

His average running position is 11.8, also fifth-best in the series.

His average finish is 14.1.

Back To His Roots: Martinsville Memories Always Special For NASCAR's Brett Bodine

The year was 1985. Brett Bodine was a damn good Modified driver who also worked as a fabricator for Rick Hendrick, on Hendrick's national series cars then driven by Brett's brother Geoff.

A Modified/NASCAR Nationwide Series doubleheader weekend at Martinsville was suddenly conflicting with a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol which had been postponed by rain. Geoff Bodine, committed first and foremost to the bigger series, pleaded with Hendrick to give the fabricator a shot in the NASCAR Nationwide race, in the first-rate No. 5 Levi Garrett sponsored Pontiac.

Eventually Hendrick went along with the somewhat-radical idea and replaced one brother with another.

"So we went out there and won the race," Brett said.

"That was the start of my career in NASCAR. I ended up doing 12 events for Rick Hendrick that year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series."

What a year it was for Bodine, who these days serves as NASCAR's director of competition research and development. He went on to win two other NASCAR Nationwide events in '84, at Bristol and Rockingham. Overall he had seven top-five finishes and 10 top 10s that season.

But what a day that was -- April 6, 1985 to be exact. Brett is reminded of that victory daily. In his office at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., he has a framed copy of the Martinsville Bulletin from April 7, 1985.

"Bodine Wins Sportsman Race" blares the headline.

Brett got $9,150 for the victory -- huge money at the time, especially for a fabricator.

And while he may have won the race, he didn't get to keep the unique winner's "trophy" -- a grandfather clock. The car's co-owner, Robert Gee, called dibs on the clock in Victory Lane. Hendrick would later buy Brett a replacement.

"That season led to me driving full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series," Brett said.

"It really started for me that day in Martinsville A fabricator taking a car to Victory Lane ...

"Can you imagine if that happened today?"

Loop Data: Stewart, Hamlin 'First (And Second) In Class' At Martinsville

When the final 2009 points were set, Kurt Busch joked that he was "first in class" after finishing fourth behind Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

In many ways, the Martinsville Speedway statistics mirrors those of last season.

It's Hendrick Motorsports, and everyone else.

Hendrick -- specifically the combination of Johnson and Gordon -- has won eight of the last 11 races at Martinsville. They rank 1-2 in pre-race Driver Rating (Johnson has a 125.5; Gordon a 123.0).

But the three races not won by Hendrick over that span were won by Joe Gibbs Racing (courtesy of Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, twice).

Stewart, now with his own team Stewart- Haas Racing, ranks third in pre-race Driver Rating, making him "first in class" at Martinsville. Hamlin's fourth -- and climbing.

Hamlin has won two of the last four races at Martinsville, including the last one -- October's Chase race.

What makes them prime candidates to knock Hendrick off its Martinsville throne: Their ability to dominate.

Both Stewart and Hamlin have scored race best figures in a number of Loop Data statistics.

A race at Martinsville comes at a perfect time for Hamlin, who sits 19th in series points -- a career-worst points position after five races.

Over his last four Martinsville races, all of which were top-five finishes, Hamlin has an average finish of 2.3, a Driver Rating of 124.9, an Average Running Position of 5.6, 148 Fastest Laps Run, 378 Laps Led and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 95.1%.

FANTASY FOCUS: Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, the winner at Martinsville has always come from the top five in pre-race Driver Rating. October's winner, Denny Hamlin was ranked fourth in pre-race Driver Rating at the time.

Tight Battle At The Top: Harvick-Kenseth A Surprise 1-2 In Points

A quick lap around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shows that Jimmie's winning ... Junior's improving ... Jeff's giving chase ... and the surprising combination of Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) and Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) are 1-2 in the series standings.

How'd this happen? After all, neither Harvick nor Kenseth have won a race this year.

Consistency instead has carried the two drivers -- one a former series championship contender the other a former series champion -- to the top of the early-season heap.

Coming into Martinsville, Harvick's lead is scant -- 774-773. But just the fact he's at the top of the standings is a bit ominous for the rest of the series. Harvick has long been considered a possible future NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. He has two NASCAR Nationwide Series titles (2001 and '06) to his credit.

Harvick may not have won this year but he's been close, starting the season with a seventh-place run at the Daytona 500, then finishing second in consecutive weeks at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Along the way, his renowned swagger -- reminiscent of the man he replaced at Richard Childress Racing, the late Dale Earnhardt -- has returned.

He has talked tough about challenging the long-running preeminence of Jimmie Johnson.

He has weighed in on the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski feud, taking some swipes at Edwards, an adversary from seasons past.

On Tuesday during a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where NASCAR Sprint Cup cars are testing the new spoilers this week, Harvick had some choice words for the media. When asked if he indeed was an "instigator" of controversy, Harvick backed away from that label.

"You guys want [us to] give an opinion then you want to bury us after we give it to you to make everybody look as bad as possible," Harvick said. "You say something and it goes as far as everybody wants to take it.

"But I have an opinion on a lot of things."

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) may not have won much lately at Martinsville, but he nonetheless has his own streak of respectability going at the famed short track.

Since April 2005, Gordon hasn't finished out of the top five at Martinsville. He started the streak resoundingly that year, sweeping the season's two races. Those two victories are part of his total of seven at Martinsville, tied for third all time with Rusty Wallace.

In addition to the seven victories, Gordon has seven poles, 22 top fives and 28 top 10s in 34 career starts at Martinsville.

"It's always been a rhythm track for me," said Gordon, 13th in the series standings. "It just took me a few years and thousands of laps to find that rhythm. But once I did, it just clicked." ...

Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet) finished second at Bristol this past Sunday, his best result of the year, and is up to fifth in the standings. Stewart has two wins at Martinsville -- six years apart, in 2000 and '06. His crew chief Darian Grubb provides some local flavor; Grubb is from the tiny town of Floyd, Va., Northwest of the speedway. ...

For some competitors, the "bubble" has burst. We're talking about the bubble in and around the 35th-place position in the current NASCAR Sprint Cup car owner standings. Starting this weekend, current points determine the 35 guaranteed starting spots awarded to teams each week. Prior to this week, last season's final car owner standings were the basis for the guarantees.

This week, the 35th and final guarantee goes to the No. 37 ExtenZe Ford driven by Kevin Conway, for owner Doug Yates. Three teams are within 50 points of the No. 37.

Up Next: Race 7 at Texas

After an open week due to the Easter holiday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads Southwest, to Texas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval for the Samsung Mobile 500 on Sunday, April 18. (FOX, 2. p.m. ET; race start 3 p.m.)

Jeff Gordon is the defending race champion. His win at TMS in the spring of 2009 was the last time he visited Victory Lane. That marked the first and thus far only time Gordon has won at TMS and left him winless at only one race track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- Homestead- Miami.

Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) won the first NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Texas, in 1997. Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) has a series-high three TMS victories.

Fast Facts

The Race: Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500
The Place: Martinsville Speedway (.526-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, March 28
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 500 laps / 263 miles

TV: FOX , 12 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128:

2009 Polesitter: Jeff Gordon
2009 Winner: Jimmie Johnson

Schedule prior to race day:
Friday -- Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Qualifying, 3:10 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 10:30-11:15 a.m. and 11:50-1:50 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Brett Bodine , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Ned Jarrett , Carl Edwards , Junior Johnson , Kevin Conway , Brad Keselowski , Denny Hamlin , Mark Martin
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Hendrick Motorsports