There are no givens at Martinsville Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, winners of 11 of the last 20 races at the 0.526-mile paper clip-shaped track, can speak eloquently to that as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series steamrolls into Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500.
Each had the look of the winner a year ago, restarting one-two with the white flag literally in the starter’s hand. Enter Clint Bowyer’s banzai charge that went awry, igniting a multi-car accident that produced bruised feelings lasting all the way into autumn.
Ryan Newman, who’d been a lap down minutes earlier, unapologetically wound up in Victory Lane.
“It was a win; that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
Sunday’s 129th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the southern Virginia track likely will feature more of the same. There have been double-digit caution flags in 25 of the last 26 Martinsville races.
Yet Johnson and Gordon remain the drivers to beat regardless of circumstance.
Johnson is the track’s most recent winner, capturing last fall’s race that boosted him to the top spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.™ The victory was Johnson’s seventh at Martinsville, a total he shares with Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
The Johnson-Gordon juggernaut amounts to a “Big Two” at the only current track that occupied a spot on the series’ inaugural 1949 season. Johnson won three consecutive races in 2006-07 and carries a series-best Driver Rating of 122.3. Gordon enjoyed season sweeps in 2003 and 2005.
Amazingly, four-time champion Gordon has run 40 Martinsville races without a DNF. In addition to his seven wins, Gordon has amassed 25 top fives, 32 top 10s and seven poles.
Owner Rick Hendrick looks for a record 20th Martinsville win that would break a deadlock at the top with Petty Enterprises.
Johnson and Gordon aren’t the only current competitors to have solved Martinsville’s puzzle. Unfortunately, a third member of a “Big Three” triumvirate – Denny Hamlin – won’t be around to challenge his rivals.
Injured in a final-lap incident March 24 at Auto Club Speedway, Hamlin grudgingly gives up his seat in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to Mark Martin (see story page 2).
The 32-year-old Virginian actually had gotten the better of Johnson and Gordon since his first of four Martinsville victories in the spring of 2008. Hamlin fashioned three consecutive wins in 2009-10. His 12 top-10 finishes also include a pair of seconds and a third.
Newman, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are the only current competitors able to break the Johnson-Gordon-Hamlin Martinsville stranglehold over a 20-race span that began in 2003.