MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have combined to win the past nine Sprint Cup races at Martinsville Speedway.
Could it really be that two guys are that much superior, and the 41 others have no chance at winning on NASCAR's oldest active track?
No, insisted Johnson. The secret to winning at Martinsville is nothing more than accepting the 0.526-mile paper-clip-shaped track as it is and not trying anything fancy.
"There's one way to drive this place and that's it," said Johnson, a six-time Martinsville winner.
Jeff Gordon leads active drivers with seven wins at the track, but only two drivers have mastered Martinsville's flat track since 2006, when Johnson began a run that lasted until Hamlin caught him. Hamlin is a four-time Martinsville winner, including the past three visits to the state where he grew up.
Johnson, who earned his first Martinsville win in fall 2004, credits that domination by him and Hamlin to knowing exactly what to do from the moment their car hits the track in Friday's first practice.
"A lot of tracks have a lot of other options, but there's one very specific line you have to run, and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years," Johnson said. "That's what Denny has been able to do, and what we've been able to do and Jeff has done."
Hamlin didn't disagree.
"I just think that we have got something figured out that really no one else has figured out at this point," Hamlin said.
Hamlin has had Martinsville figured out since his rookie season. He has 10 top-10s in 11 career starts, with his only blemish a 2006 crash that led to a 37th-place finish in his second race at the track.
Last year, with his team in a slump, Hamlin came to Martinsville and said that he'd have knee surgery the day after the race, which was then rescheduled to Monday because of rain. Most everyone wrote off Hamlin's chances for the race win and the championship. He instead bulldozed his way through the field on a final restart to grab his first victory of the season.
From there, Hamlin weathered the surgery, won eight races and finished second to Johnson for the title.
Hamlin needs a repeat performance. His 39th-place last week at California dropped him to 21st in points. But he won't be concerned unless Sunday is a bust for him.
"We're looking to (Martinsville) to be the one that kind of sets our season in motion," Hamlin said. "Hopefully it's no different this year."