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Jimmie Could Be Down To His Last Gasp

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 29 2011

Jimmie Johnson's hopes for a sixth straight Sprint Cup championship could be dashed Sunday at Martinsville. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Hendrick Motorsports has dominated Martinsville Speedway this century, winning 10 of the last 17 races with Jimmie Johnson claiming six of them.

In fact, from April 2003-March 2009 Hendrick Motorsports lost only three Martinsville races – one to Rusty Wallace, one to Tony Stewart and another to Denny Hamlin. When Johnson wasn’t in victory lane, Jeff Gordon possessed it. Overall, Gordon is tied with Wallace for third on the Martinsville victory list with seven. Johnson’s six wins ties him with Dale Earnhardt, Fred Lorenzen and Cale Yarborough for fourth on the half-mile track’s victory list.

With an 82-point deficit to standings-leader Carl Edwards, Gordon has already seen his title hopes fade into the sunset. For Johnson, who trails Edwards by 50 points, Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 provides the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion with his best opportunity to keep his title hopes alive. The 36-year-old Johnson owns the best average finish at Martinsville – 5.6 – and has led 1,616 laps. Yet Johnson, just like the other 42 competitors in the field, knows the series oldest and shortest track is also the toughest to negotiate.

“Technology does not change a lot here,” Johnson said about Martinsville. “Guys that run well continue to show strength and guys that struggle seem to typically do.”

If Johnson fails to win Sunday, it will be the first time since 2005 the California native has failed to

Jimmie Johnson needs a victory on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

secure a short-track victory. This year Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have dominated the short tracks with two victories each. Brad Keselowski, who trails Edwards by 18 points, won the other short-track race. Harvick won Martinsville’s April event, but even the Richard Childress Racing driver admitted the paperclip-shaped track was a constant challenge.

“It’s just one of those places where it takes such little increments of getting better that you can’t just go out there and change it all at once,” says Harvick, who’s fifth in points, 26 behind Edwards. “It’s like you learn a little piece here and a little piece there. Luckily for me I’ve had teammates that have run well here, so we’ve adapted a lot of the setup stuff. You go back and you look at tape and you just try to figure out exactly what they’re doing with the same stuff to get better.”

Denny Hamlin, who has won three of the last four Martinsville races, noted the speedway was a “technique” track.

“When you find a technique that works for you where you pick up a little bit of time, you can keep that,” Hamlin said. “No matter what vehicle you’re running in … when aero and horsepower don’t mean as much at a race track and it’s more about the way you technically drive around it and things like that and, of course, the information and how good your car is, too … it doesn’t matter what rule changes there are or whether it’s a wing or a spoiler or the car of tomorrow or car of yesterday, doesn’t matter, those same techniques work. That’s why you continually see the same guys running up front at this race track.”

Martinsville hasn’t been kind to Edwards or Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who trails the point leader by 14. Edwards’ best Martinsville finish came in October 2008 when he placed third. Overall, Edwards has a 16.8 average finish at Martinsville. Kenseth’s best finish at the torturous short track occurred in April 2002 when he finished second. His overall Martinsville average finish is 15.8.

“This place has been a really tough race track for me and for our team, but we have had some really good runs here,” says Edwards, who’s starting on the pole due to qualifying being rained out. “I don’t mind driving here. I think part of my problem here, maybe, is the way that I practice and the way that I want my car to feel in practice, because it just seems like we start the race and I always struggle in the race. Hopefully, we can go run well and keep this points lead or extend it moving forward toward some tracks that we’re really confident about.”

After Sunday’s race, only three events remain in the season. Two are at 1.5-mile tracks – Texas and Homestead – while the third is on the 1-mile Phoenix speedway.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 29 2011
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