March 29, 2014

Martinsville and TMS pump up Johnson, Gordon

The Hendricks teammates haven’t won this season, but a favorable stretch of tracks, including Texas Motor Speedway next week, awaits

Five races into the season, NASCAR has five winners, and none of them are named Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon.

That might change Sunday.

Both veteran drivers have won eight times at Martinsville Speedway, where the STP 500 will run on the half-mile track. Between them, they have the last three victories at Martinsville.

But the other one is not necessarily out of luck.

Next week, the Sprint Cup series visits Texas Motor Speedway, where Johnson has won three times, including the last race in November, and Gordon has won once. Gordon had a tough year at TMS in 2013, but the schedule is starting to set up for the two most successful drivers in the Hendrick Motorsports garage.

“It’s not uncommon for us to get a little deeper in the season before we start winning,” Johnson said. “Statistically, I think the end of the year is when we heat up the most. So, you know what? We have a good track [at Martinsville], and Dover is coming up soon, and there are a lot of big opportunities coming along.”

Gordon has a big opportunity at Martinsville, where he won in October. He was 38th in both races in Fort Worth last year, so he can’t count on recent success to springboard him at TMS like he can at Martinsville.

“I always had confidence [at Martinsville] because we always run good and have been in position many times to win,” he said. “I have always had confidence coming here because of laps led and having cars capable of winning. But when you actually finish first and you complete what you set out to do, it gives you added confidence and momentum going back to that track.”

In that case, no one ought to have more confidence going into Sunday’s race than Johnson and Gordon. But they know they will have to contend with each other, not to mention other favorites, such as Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick.

“When I first got here, the short run really hurt me, especially late in the race, and that was a strength that Jeff had,” Johnson said. “And now, Jeff certainly still has his short-run speed, but he’s figured out something on the long run. The last couple of times we’ve been here on the long haul, his car has been better than just about anybody.”

Fox analyst Larry McReynolds said there’s a spark of rivalry between the teammates.

“I’m sure there’s always that little bit of ego — each of them would like to say, ‘I’ve got one more win than you at Martinsville,’ ” he said. “No question, when you think about Martinsville, the first two drivers that pop into your mind are Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. And Hendrick has 20-something wins here. As an organization, obviously, whatever they do, evidently it works at this racetrack.”

For Hendrick, it’s a chance to get another of their drivers the victory required to be in the Chase. Dale Earnhardt Jr. already picked his up in the season opener.

“Truthfully, every team has good tracks and bad tracks,” Johnson said. “I think our good tracks are placed kind of spring and fall — the Dovers, Martinsville, Texas, those types of tracks — and we’re getting into them. Hopefully, we can get something here early to check that box and progress through the regular season and make sure our car’s right, because there’s a lot of change going on and a lot of speed to still find in our race cars and then buckle down in the Chase.

“We’ve always operated well in the Chase, and again, a lot of it is because those tracks are really our strong tracks.”

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