Last week at Fontana we saw teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon battle it out down the stretch on their home state track. This week at Martinsville we should see more of the same.
Johnson would end up blowing a tire while leading late and finished 24th, while Gordon who then took the lead, would be hurt by caution with two laps to go. After the pit, Gordon came out ninth and would eventually finish 13th. Gordon had perhaps his best race of the season and he ends up having his first finish outside the top-10 of the season.
Usually when we come to Martinsville, we consider this a three-horse race because Gordon, Johnson and Denny Hamlin have dominated the flat half-mile track.
The prize the track gives for winning is a grandfather clock, and Johnson has eight of them, including two in the past three races. Over his last 20 starts, Johnson has an average finish of 3.8. Think about it, with all the volatility of a NASCAR race with other drivers beating and banging on the fenders, possible tire or mechanical issues, this guy has driven like Superman at Martinsville. Of all the tracks that Johnson is great at, no place compares to the domination he shows at Martinsville.
As great as Johnson is at Martinsville, it’s open for debate that Gordon might actually be better there. He’s certainly been doing it longer, and he too has eight grandfather clocks, including one in this race last fall.
Gordon had been stuck at seven wins at Martinsville since 2005, when he swept the season. But between the rise of Johnson and Hamlin, they would win 11 of the 14 races until Gordon finally won last season. Gordon routinely finished second or third to those drivers during their run.
With a little momentum from last week, and a car that has been very good on five vastly different tracks, there’s no reason to believe Gordon won’t be one of the top-2 drivers with a few laps to go.
Gordon’s chances to win go up dramatically if Hamlin isn’t 100 percent. He missed last week’s Fontana race because of a sinus infection that impaired his vision. With 45 minutes before he was schedule to start, a doctor wouldn’t clear him to race and Sam Hornish Jr. stepped in to drive the No. 11 car.
It would be a shocker if Hamlin missed this week too, just because he could probably compete at his home track while being blindfolded. He knows every inch of that track and has won four times, the last being in 2010. He missed this race last season because of injuries sustained at Fontana the week prior when Joey Logano punted him.
So based on missing a race, a question mark applied to his vision and not winning a grandfather clock in his last five starts, his rating drops a little while Johnson’s and Gordon’s go up.
Who will be the drivers contends with Johnson and Gordon?
• Brad Keselowski is a good start, not just because of running well everywhere this season, but also because he’s finished sixth or better in his past three starts there.
Tony Stewart is a three-time winner, but the wear and tear of making 1,000 left turns on the day would seem to effect his leg more than other tracks.
• Matt Kenseth had never fared well at Martinsville until last fall when he led 202 laps, then settled for second after Gordon passed with 20 laps to go. All his previous seasons were with Roush Racing and it was apparent last season that some Joe Gibbs Racing info sharing with Hamlin’s team helped him have a better car than ever before.
• Kevin Harvick may be the best candidate of all. He won in 2011, which was a monumental feat because it wasn’t Hamlin, Johnson or Gordon winning. He’s going to have a great car all season it looks like.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].