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Johnson, Hamlin are latest masters of Martinsville

April 02, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- When on a roll, history proves drivers repeatedly find their way to Victory Lane

For a place that has been holding NASCAR races since 1949, there haven't been as many different winners at Martinsville Speedway as one might think.

That's because when a driver gets on a roll at the .526-mile short track, he tends to ride it to Victory Lane for a while. Repeatedly.

"When I come here I know I've got a lot of laps around this track. I expect to be the best on it if I'm here the most."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Richard Petty won at the paper-clip layout a record 15 times. Darrell Waltrip did so 11 times. In more recent years, Rusty Wallace visited Victory Lane seven times and so did Jeff Gordon.

The latest Masters of Martinsville are Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Between them, they've won the last nine Sprint Cup events at the venue and figure to be in the mix at the front again Sunday during the Goody's Fast Relief 500. Or at least that's what most of the competitors who intend to battle them Sunday are figuring.

"You can almost guarantee the top two spots will be the 11 [Toyota of Hamlin] and the 48 [Chevrolet of Johnson], so everybody else is racing for third," Kyle Busch said.

Johnson has won six Cup races overall at Martinsville, but Hamlin has won the past three. Johnson's record is remarkable in the fact that since a part broke in his car during his inaugural rookie run at the track in 2002, he's never finished out of the top 10. That's 17 consecutive top-10 finishes for Johnson at the place.

"I would think those first two or three years that I would have been outside the top 10," Johnson said. "I heard that stat before I came up here this week and was pretty shocked to hear that myself."

So what is it about this place that lends itself to streaks of dominance by some individuals, while others struggle to survive all the bumping and banging to so much as finish on the lead lap? Gordon said he thinks he knows -- and as a seven-time winner who was dubbed "Mr. Martinsville" before publicly handing that moniker over to Johnson a few years ago, he should know something about it.

Martinsville victories

All-time Cup leaders
DriverWins
Darrell Waltrip11
Jeff Gordon7
Rusty Wallace7
Dale Earnhardt6
Jimmie Johnson6
Fred Lorenzen6
Cale Yarborough6
Geoff Bodine4
Denny Hamlin4

"I think this is one of those tracks where, because the speeds are down so much compared to our bigger, faster tracks [that] aerodynamics don't play as much of role," Gordon said. "Mechanical grip plays a pretty significant role. So very few changes have happened at Martinsville. ... Things at other tracks, even Bristol [Motor Speedway, another short track], have gone through more significant changes over the years. But here at Martinsville, not a lot has changed. We talk about a little tweak in the tire and that's about the biggest thing that comes along.

"It's just that there's not a lot you can do to make big changes and gains in the cars. You are constantly tweaking on the brakes; constantly trying to find a package that makes you go a little bit faster, but every time we come here the lap times are pretty consistent. So when you find something as a driver and as a team, you can make it work for a fairly long period of time."

Gordon hasn't won at Martinsville since sweeping the spring and fall races in 2005. He said he thinks his streak of dominance ended at least in part because Johnson was quicker to adapt to the new car NASCAR introduced in 2007. From the fall race at the track in 2006 through the fall race in 2009, Johnson won five of six races -- with Hamlin winning the only one he didn't during that stretch in the spring of 2008.

"That was a pretty major change and that's probably been one of the biggest reasons why we haven't been able to keep our dominance that we once had," Gordon said. "And I think that will happen with anybody. For anybody who shows dominance at a track, when a major change does come along it will take some time to adapt to that and get back, if ever, to that success they had at one time at a place like Martinsville."

Hamlin said much of it is simply having confidence. Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va., considers the tracks in Richmond and Martinsville his home tracks and always has run well at both venues.

"Quirky tracks have always worked for me. And this track certainly is that."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

"When it comes down to it, whoever has got the patience and technique here, it all still works out in the end," Hamlin said of Martinsville. "Jimmie has won with new car, old car -- all kinds of different situations -- because of his technique. So no matter what you pull out there as far as different rules, different tires, the guys with the best techniques at this race track are still going to preside right up at the top.

"The biggest thing for me is when we come here we expect to win, and everyone expects us to win. No one puts more pressure on myself than me. When I come here I know I've got a lot of laps around this track. I expect to be the best on it if I'm here the most."

Johnson said he is somewhat surprised that Martinsville has become one of his favorites over the years. But he said he learned from Gordon in the early years and over time, he developed a rhythm that has not been disrupted much by anything -- except maybe for Hamlin.

"Quirky tracks have always worked for me. And this track certainly is that," he said. "When I first came here, the first year or year and a half, there was no way I thought this track would be one that I liked. But in time, and in learning how to drive it, there is just one way to really get around here.

"A lot of tracks have a lot of other options but there's one very specific line you have to run and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years. And that's what Denny [Hamlin] has been able to do and what we've been able to do and Jeff [Gordon] has done. So I really think it falls into that category. You go to a big track and there are three or four lanes to run on, you can move around and find somewhere that works for your set-up if you missed it [and] for your own driving style. That's not the case here. There's one way to drive this place and that's it."

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