Denny Hamlin is one of the best short-track drivers in NASCAR. His five wins at Martinsville Speedway should be enough evidence, and he’s in position for win No. 6 by qualifying eighth Friday.
With Jeff Gordon and his nine wins now retired, a reporter posed this question to Hamlin: Who is his biggest competition going into Sunday’s STP 500?
Hamlin didn’t say Jimmie Johnson, who has the most Martinsville wins (8) among active drivers. Or other drivers who have won at the famed “Paperclip” such as Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Instead, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing said without hesitation: “Myself.
“I don’t know how many pit road penalties I’ve had here at this racetrack or why I choose to push it on pit road knowing that I have the speed on the racetrack that we’ve shown. I think I’ve had two in the last bunch of races, just consecutively. That’s been a challenge.
I’m pretty optimistic for obvious reasons, and I look at this point in the schedule as, ‘Let’s take advantage of getting some wins and getting some bonus points for the first round [of the Chase].’
Denny Hamlin, who is fourth in the driver standings
“And last year in the fall race I beat up my car pretty good trying to come back through the pack the second time, or maybe it was the first time I had a penalty. I think it’s me just being a little more cautious on pit road and making sure that I’ve got a car that can finish the race with all four fenders.”
Hamlin made it clear that drivers should not expect to win the race with pit road penalties, even if they happen early in the race.
“Especially the boneheaded things that I’ve done,” Hamlin said. “It takes its toll on the car to have to come through the pack multiple times.”
Hamlin has won only once in the past nine races at Martinsville, which comes on the heels of having won three straight.
Despite some recent struggles, Hamlin remains one of the favorites to win Sunday. Plus, there is less pressure on him this time, considering he has virtually secured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by winning the season-opening Daytona 500.
“It just makes me hungry, I look at the next six races and I’m like, ‘If I don’t win two of them I’ll probably be disappointed,’ ” Hamlin said. “I’m pretty optimistic for obvious reasons, and I look at this point in the schedule as, “Let’s take advantage of getting some wins and getting some bonus points for the first round.’ ”
Logano on the pole
Joey Logano won his third consecutive pole at Martinsville, and is hoping to finally turn it into a win. Logano posted the fastest qualifying speed in the final round at 97.043 mph, better than Kasey Kahne (97.033) and Brian Vickers (96.864). Paul Menard and Ryan Newman round out the top five.
Martinsville is the most important track to start up front for a lot of reasons.
Joey Logano, who won the pole for Sunday’s race
Logano was the top driver in all three qualifying rounds.
“Martinsville is the most important track to start up front for a lot of reasons,” Logano said. “I’m excited about the race.”
Logano had been in position to win the race last fall before Matt Kenseth intentionally took him out in a retaliatory move. Logano finished third from the pole position in the 2015 spring race.
Logano had top-five runs in each of the 2014 races as well.
Rookie Ryan Blaney is set to make his Martinsville debut, and is looking forward to it.
It’s really neat to be able to run a Cup car, let alone the 21 car over here. That just kind of adds to the special factor.
Rookie Ryan Blaney, who grew up 45 minutes from Martinsville
He grew up in nearby High Point, N.C., and his team owners, Wood Brothers Racing, are based in nearby Stuart, Va. To say the least, Martinsville carries significance for each.
“It’s nice to be back at pretty much [the Wood brothers] home track,” said Blaney, who qualified 12th. “I grew up 45 minutes away, and I would come to this race every year and watch my dad [Dave Blaney] and watch the trucks. I just thought it was such a cool place.
“It’s really neat to be able to run a Cup car, let alone the 21 car over here. That just kind of adds to the special factor.”
Setback for Bayne
Trevor Bayne had a practice accident Friday and will be in a backup car Sunday, forcing him to start in the back of the field.
“I really hate this for our team,” said Bayne, driver of the No. 6 Ford. “The backup car will be good. I hate that we worked on that one in race trim and I tore it up.”
Bayne has raced at Martinsville three times in his career with a career-best 18th finish in the spring 2015 race.