Hamlin tabs himself as the man to beat at Martinsville
MARTINSVILLE, VA. >> Denny Hamlin didn't hesitate in the least.
"Myself," he said when asked who his biggest competition is at Martinsville Speedway now that Jeff Gordon, a nine-time winner on NASCAR's oldest and smallest oval, has retired and moved into the broadcast booth.
"I don't know how many pit road penalties I've had here at this race track or why I choose to push it on pit road knowing that I have the speed on the race track that we've shown," the Chesterfield, Virginia native said.
"I think I've had two in the last bunch of races, just consecutively."
Still, defending champion Hamlin will try for his sixth career victory on the 0.526-mile oval Sunday, and while he hopes to curb his own self-destructive nature on pit road, he'll be wise to keep an eye on some of his rivals, too.
Jimmie Johnson, the only driver with two victories through the first five races of the season, has won eight times at Martinsville, but the track's unique trophy — a grandfather clock — has gone elsewhere the last five races.
Joey Logano won his third consecutive pole here Friday, and has never won the race. But he was running in the lead and seemingly certain to at least contend to the finish last fall until Matt Kenseth took him out in Turn 1.
Gordon was the last driver to win three straight poles here, in 2003-04, and while Logano said it was nice to be mentioned in the same company as the four-time champion, making a visit to Victory Lane would be even nicer.
It's the kind of thought that had Hamlin eager to get back to work during last week's break for Easter.
"Really the last 10 days or so I've really been itching about getting back because this is such a fun race for me and obviously we have a lot of high expectations," Hamlin said. "I come here, it's very similar to when I was racing go-karts back in the day, like all the WKA Nationals would come to my home track and I was like, 'OK, I have a chance to beat them because I know this track.' Kind of like that. The best comes to town and it just feels like I race here every week. Even my first lap here on the track here, it feels like I've run a million laps here."
Hamlin has made 20 starts at Martinsville, and many of those laps he's run — 1,315 — he was leading. That's far more than every driver in Sunday's field except one: in 28 starts, Johnson has paced the field for 2,746 laps.
Hamlin will start eighth Sunday, and Johnson will start 24th, but other than the ideal pit box position Logano will have in the first stall, 500 laps affords drivers plenty of time to move up through the field.
Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin has two more top-five finishes. Besides having high expectations for this weekend, he feels like he's entering a stretch where he can make a move in the standings.
"I look at the next six races and I'm like if I don't win two of them I'll probably be disappointed," he said, noting that he and long-time crew chief Mike Wheeler have been clicking especially well of late.
MEMORIES: Richard Petty Motorsports has two cars in Sunday's race, the 43 piloted by Aric Almirola and the 44 driven by Brian Scott. The start will be the first in the series for Scott on the oval, and a different kind of race than the ones The King drove here. He raced a record 67 times at Martinsville, and won a record 15 of them.
In one race, he said, "I don't remember if I spun out and my dad ran into me, or he spun out and I ran into him, but we wiped out two cars up here down in third corner one day," he said. "That was probably the lowest point."
How did that conversation with your dad go?
"It wasn't good, but I was working on the cars, so I had to fix both of them," Petty said, laughing.
WATCH FOR: Kasey Kahne on Sunday, starting alongside Joey Logano on the front row.
"We had a top 10 here the last race, last year, with the back-up car because I crashed it in qualifying, and this car is better than our primary car was last time," Kahne said. He finished ninth here Nov. 1.
OH FER: Kyle Busch went into Saturday's truck race winless in 30 career starts at Martinsville.
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