Jimmie Johnson was ranked fourth this week by ESPN The Magazine on their list of sports’ “Dominant 20” athletes of the last two decades, which also included names like golf’s Tiger Woods, basketball’s Lebron James and the football’s Peyton Manning. And when it comes to this week’s Martinsville (Va.) Speedway NASCAR venue Johnson has shown himself to be as absolutely dominant as it comes.
With nine previous wins – including five in a six-race stretch – NASCAR’s “paperclip” track, Johnson has led an amazing 20.6 percent of all laps run at the historic property. His 7.7 average finish and 115.8 driver rating are easily tops among his competition this weekend and he leads in six of the seven traditional statistical categories at the track.
Rebounding from an uncharacteristically slow start to the season, Johnson had his first top-10 showing of the year last weekend at Auto Club Speedway – ninth place in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – and no doubt has Martinsville circled on his calendar.
A win this weekend would make Johnson only the third driver in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history to have 10 or more wins at multiple tracks (he has 11 at Dover) – joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. If Johnson can lead 138 laps of Sunday’s scheduled 500-lapper, he would top the 3,000 laps led mark at Martinsville – one of only five drivers to have led 3,000 laps or more at multiple tracks. He also has 3,000 laps out front at Dover International Speedway.
Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion and current points leader Martin Truex Jr. dominated the competition to collect his first trophy of the season Sunday in California, snapping an 18-race winless streak at the track. But he faces a similar winless barrier this weekend at tiny Martinsville Speedway (Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Truex is still looking for his first victory in his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota after 24 races at Martinsville, where he has only three top-five and eight top-10 finishes. He started on the outside pole and finished runner-up in his last race there in November and has four total top-seven finishes in his last six starts there.
Among the top 10 in the standings, only Kyle Larson (73.4) and Aric Almirola (66.1) have lower driver ratings than Truex (76.6) at Martinsville.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch has been oh-so-close to a win in 2018 – finishing runner-up in consecutive races at Las Vegas and ISM Raceway and finishing third last week at California’s Auto Club Speedway. This week’s season-opening short track race may well be just what the doctor ordered.
The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has two wins and five consecutive top-five showings in the last five races at Martinsville Speedway, including a victory the last time the Monster Energy Series raced there in November, 2017. He has top-10 finishes in seven of the last 10 races.
Denny Hamlin, who grew up in Chesterfield, Virginia, has certainly turned his good home state vibes into a success story in Martinsville. His driver rating of 105.8 is second only to the track’s winningest active driver, Jimmie Johnson. Five of Hamlin’s 31 career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins have come there, including four in a seven-race span between 2008-2010. His mark of 18 top-10 finishes in second only to Johnson’s 24 top 10s.
Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has had mixed success on the track since his last win in 2015, however. He has alternated between a top 10 and 30th-place or worse in the last fives races here – finishing 30th in the spring race in 2017 and seventh in the fall race.
Hamlin arrives in his home state boasting one of the best overall 2018 season efforts – with four top-six finishes in five races.
Penske Racing hasn’t hoisted a trophy yet in 2018, but its three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers have certainly made strong cases that a win is imminent. They are ranked third (Joey Logano), fourth (Brad Keselowski) and fifth (Ryan Blaney) in the points standings coming to Martinsville, a venue that offers a lot of promise for the team.
Keselowski is the defending winner of the STP 500 and boasts four consecutive top-five finishes at Martinsville – five in the last six races. He’s fourth in the points standings, despite crashing out of the Daytona 500, by virtue of three top-six runs through the season’s opening five races.
Logano, who led the Monster Energy Series driver standings for two weeks following Atlanta and Las Vegas, is looking for his first Martinsville victory. His No. 22 Team Penske Ford has certainly shown speed at the track. He was on the pole for the Fall Martinsville race and has won the Busch Pole Award for four of the last six races at the half-miler.
The team’s newest addition, popular 24-year old Blaney, is hoping to turn his strong season start into some Martinsville success. His 2018 season includes three top-10 finishes and he won the pole position at Las Vegas. His only top 10 (eighth-place) in four Martinsville races came in his last start there.
Stewart-Haas Racing celebrated its first ever placement of all four drivers in the top 10 two weeks ago in Phoenix and the organization also has a historic mark in the points standings heading to Martinsville Speedway this weekend (Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
All four of its drivers are firmly ranked consecutively in the top-12 portion of the championship standings – a first for SHR at this point in the season. Three-time race winner and 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick leads his teammates in eighth place.
Second-year SHR driver Clint Bowyer is ninth, followed by the team’s newest addition, Aric Almirola, and 2004 Monster Energy Series champ Kurt Busch.
Kyle Larson’s runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway last week was a firm reminder that the 25-year old Chip Ganassi Racing driver is championship-caliber.
He has three top-10 finishes since a rough Daytona 500 season opener, including a third-place at Las Vegas along with his second-place in California. And he sits seventh in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings, 42 behind the leader Martin Truex Jr.
Larson is hoping to turn the early season success story into a Martinsville break-through. The popular Californian won the pole position for the STP 500 last year but has only one top-10 (third-place in 2016) in eight races here.
Daniel Hemric has earned the NASCAR start of his lifetime.
Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday that the 27-year-old will make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut, driving the No. 8 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff Chevrolet in the April 21 race at Richmond Raceway. He will then race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course on Sept. 30.
Hemric, who drives for RCR fulltime in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, has put in time helping the organization’s Monster Energy Series teams from testing the cars to filling in during practice sessions.
“You only get one chance to make your Cup Series debut, and it is pretty incredible to know that I am able to do it with Richard Childress Racing and with a partner such as Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff,” Hemric said. “RCR and Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff have been so influential in so many drivers’ careers – a lot of my heroes growing up. To know they will play a large role in the next step of my career and my initial Cup Series debut is very special.”
“The 8 is coming back. Good luck with it @DanielHemric.’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted, ending his message with a thumbs-up emoji. Earnhardt drove the No. 8 in the Monster Energy Series ranks from 2002-2007.
Martinsville Speedway Quick Stats: Kurt Busch has the best rating for Fastest Laps at Martinsville (179) – the only statistic that Johnson isn’t tops. …Ryan Newman has won here, has eight top-five finishes and three pole positions at Martinsville, making him a driver to watch Sunday. …Johnson is the last driver to win consecutive races (Fall, 2012- Spring, 2013) and both times it was from the pole position. …The last manufacturer to score back-to-back wins at Martinsville was Chevrolet. Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. swept the 2014 races. … Kurt Busch’s two wins at the track came from starting positions closer to the rear of the starting grid. He won in 2002 from the 36th position (a track record) and his win in 2014 was 22nd. Earnhardt won in 2014 from the 23rd starting spot on the grid. … Six drivers have won three races-in-a-row here: Richard Petty (1968-69), Cale Yarborough (1976-77), Darrell Waltrip (1988-89), Rusty Wallace (1994-95) and Jimmie Johnson (2006-07). Fred Lorenzen won four straight Martinsville races between 1963-65.