The season is coming down to the wire for the eight remaining drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. For two drivers eliminated from the postseason picture, it’s also crunch time for preserving two important personal streaks.
Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each hold impressive strings of consecutive seasons with at least one victory. Johnson’s streak stands at 16 straight seasons; Hamlin’s sits at 12 straight. But both drivers are staring at perilous zeros in their respective win columns with four races remaining in the 2018 campaign.
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The good news for both veterans is that this weekend’s Monster Energy Series event is held at Martinsville Speedway, perennially a source of strength for both drivers. Johnson is a nine-time winner at the historic .526-mile track, while Hamlin has scored five career victories there.
But in Sunday’s First Data 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), only one driver can win, and the competition will be stiff with eight postseason drivers at peak preparation. With the Round of 8 about to start, NASCAR.com’s Zack Albert and George Winkler debate the merits of Hamlin and Johnson and their hopes for keeping their streaks intact.
ZA: Most every week on the circuit, speed holds the key to success. This week at Martinsville, add rhythm to the equation. Among current drivers, Jimmie Johnson is among the best at keeping time on the finicky, tight layout tucked into the Virginia hills.
Johnson’s stats rank among the all-time best for any driver at one particular venue. And while the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team has struggled to find speed at times in a rocky 2018 road, Johnson has shown steady results on short tracks with four straight top 10s at circuits shorter than a mile.
That road leads back to Martinsville, traditionally a safe haven for Johnson, who boasts an impressive 7.9 career average finish in 33 starts. His remarkable Martinsville consistency, combined with his ability to close the deal when grandfather clocks are in the balance, make him a pre-race favorite to play postseason spoiler again come Sunday.
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GW: Johnson has an edge, for sure, when it comes to history at Martinsville, but Hamlin is a close second in several statistical categories at the Paperclip, including driver rating, laps led and average finish. Perhaps more importantly Hamlin has been arguably the better overall driver recently, compiling more top-five finishes, top 10s, stage points and stage wins in 2018.
What Hamlin needs to do is just finish a race strong. He has been close to breaking through for a win on a couple of occasions, including in the spring Martinsville race when he led 111 laps only to have a run-in with Kevin Harvick doom him to a 12th-place finish.
Hamlin also came close at Indianapolis when he lost the lead to Brad Keselowski with two laps to go. These disappointments have left a bitter taste for the No. 11 team and they will be highly motivated to end the season on a high note. Plus, it would be sweet redemption for Hamlin to get a win on his home track where he was booed last year after pushing Chase Elliott out of the way late in the race.
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