Weekend Preview: Hamlin, Johnson strive to get back on track at Martinsville

The two most dominant drivers in recent memory at Martinsville Speedway are still smarting from last season’s uncharacteristic Victory Lane shutout. If the 2011 blanking has made Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson even more motivated, the rest of the field could be in trouble.

Hamlin and Johnson will get their chance to scratch the win column again when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first stop of the year at its shortest track for the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 (FOX, 1 p.m. ET).

4: Denny Hamlin (R), driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates with car owner Joe Gibbs (L), in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 24, 2010 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

4: Denny Hamlin (R), driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates with car owner Joe Gibbs (L), in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 24, 2010 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The two drivers combined to win every event in a nine-race span from 2006 to 2010 at Martinsville; Johnson won five, Hamlin four. That changed last season.

Kevin Harvick won this race last April as both Hamlin and Johnson finished just outside the top 10. Both rebounded for top-five finishes at Martinsville in the fall, but victory narrowly eluded Johnson when Tony Stewart bypassed him for a statement-making win on the way to his third title.

“I certainly want to get back to my winning ways there,” Johnson said. “But at a minimum, we always end up with a real strong finish. When I think of how close we were to victory last fall . . . it didn’t happen, but we led a lot of laps and was a factor in the end.”

For Johnson, there’s extra motivation for a milestone victory. The next win by Hendrick Motorsports — winless so far in 2012 — will be the team’s 200th.

For Hamlin, an extra edge may come in the form of Darian Grubb, who manned the pit box for Stewart’s Martinsville win last October. The new driver-crew chief combination has already produced one victory for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 team this season, lifting Hamlin to seventh in the Sprint Cup standings.

Hamlin hasn’t lacked for confidence at many points in his career, but exuded it with a bold Tuesday tweet: “If you are wondering who to pick in fantasy this weekend . . . choose 11.”

KING OF TRUCKS BACK AT IT AFTER LONG LAYOFF

John King has been living like royalty for five weeks now. That’s how long it’s been since his surprise victory in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

The truck tour resumes Saturday (SPEED, 1 p.m. ET) with the Kroger 250 at Martinsville Speedway, the second race of the young season.

 John King, driver of the #7 Red Horse Racing Toyota, poses in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

John King, driver of the #7 Red Horse Racing Toyota, poses in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series NextEra Energy Resources 250 at Daytona International Speedway on February 24, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

For King, it’s been a longer wait than most. On the heels of his Daytona win, he was eager to get back on the track the following Monday. Despite King’s extra anticipation, the time off did have a nice side benefit.

“It’s pretty cool the be the points leader for five weeks,” said King, who will turn 24 the day after Saturday’s race. “For five weeks, I’ve turned on SPEED and watched ‘Race Hub’ and seen my name scroll across the bottom of the screen — pretty wild.”

King finished 19th in his only truck start at Martinsville, in 2010, but has competed at the .526-mile track in Late Model competition. He says he’ll lean heavily on the experience of Red Horse Racing teammate Timothy Peters, a former Martinsville winner and resident of nearby Danville, Va.

“He’s in a sense, almost a short-track king,” King said. “I’ve picked his brain a lot already and I’m going to pick it a lot more, too, this week.”
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES

The Race: Goody’s Fast Relief 500
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Sunday, April 1
The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)
TV: FOX, 12:30 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 263 miles (500 laps)
Qualifying: Saturday 11:40 a.m.

2011 pole winner: Jamie McMurray, 96.509 mph 19.621 seconds
2011 race winner: Kevin Harvick,
74.195 mph, 4-3-11)
Track qualifying record: Tony Stewart (98.083 mph, 19.306 seconds, 10-21-05)
Track race record: Jeff Gordon (82.223 mph, 9-22-96)

NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The Race: Kroger 250
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 31
The Time: 1:30 p.m. (ET)
TV: SPEED, 1 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 131.5 miles (250 laps)
Qualifying: Saturday 10:05 a.m.

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