Cup Battle Comes To Martinsville

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series troops back to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this weekend. (NASCAR photo)
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series troops back to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this weekend. (NASCAR photo)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — If last season’s Victory Lane celebrations at Martinsville Speedway seemed a bit odd, consider that 2011 was the first time since 2002 that one of the track’s current Big Three — Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin — failed to win at least one race.

The trio has combined to win 14 of the track’s last 18 races.

Gordon had season sweeps in 2003 and 2005. Johnson did the same in 2007. Hamlin took care of business in 2010.

Interestingly, the only driver besides the Big Three to score multiple Martinsville victories in the past nine years is Tony Stewart, whose Tums Fast Relief 500 win last October was one of the keys to his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Hamlin returns to his home state track with plenty of momentum. He won in Phoenix and sat on the Coors Light Pole last week at Auto Club Speedway, where weather and pit strategy left Hamlin a disappointed 11th. He ranks seventh in points. By the way, Hamlin has six wins in his home state of Virginia. The biggest home state advantage? Richard Petty, with 54 wins in North Carolina.

Johnson’s fortunes continue to trend upward. He finished 10th in Southern California to reach the NASCAR Sprint Cup top 10 — a major rebound from a Daytona 500 finish of 42nd.

Gordon needs some Martinsville magic to restore the swagger the four-time champion enjoyed during last year’s three-win campaign. He has a single top-10 finish during the year’s first five races and stands 25th in points, 51 outside the top 10.

Based on last year, Gordon already may be thinking “wild card” qualification for entry into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Brad Keselowski’s three summer victories earned him a “wild card,” but weren’t enough to overcome a 50-point, top-10 deficit after five races in 2011.

Rarely a fast starter, Tony Stewart is the 2012 season’s first double winner following his victory in Sunday’s weather-shortened Auto Club 400 in Southern California.

In his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Stewart never had won multiple races before May. Only six of the three-time champion’s 46 wins – this year’s included – have come prior to June. He climbed into a tie for 14th on the all-time series win list with 1956-57 champion Buck Baker.

All of which spells worry for Stewart-Haas Racing’s driver/owner. Stewart climbed to fourth in the standings after winning in Fontana for the second time.

Just as Jimmie Johnson kept rolling after four of his five consecutive championships, Stewart is maintaining the momentum of his record Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup performance. He’s won seven of his most recent 15 starts.

The last driver to go seven-for-15 over the end of one season and beginning of another was Jimmie Johnson. He did in 2009-10.

Stewart didn’t just stand pat bringing aboard new director of competition Greg Zipadelli and crew chief Steve Addington.

“It’s easy for teams, when they have success, to kind of slow down a little bit, take a breath, feel like they’re exactly where they need to be,” said Stewart following his most recent win. “That’s probably the one thing I was most excited about through this winter, was watching our guys, listening to their comments about how excited they were to have the success we had, but how they were looking forward to next year and trying to be able to duplicate that.”

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