Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – Denny Hamlin, who won the most recent Daytona 500 on a 2.5-mile track, is happy to be visiting NASCAR’s oldest and shortest Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series speedway this weekend.
In Hamlin’s view, .526-mile Martinsville Speedway features something else that’s short—the list of potential winners.
“There’s really five guys that are kind of up front in those races,” Hamlin says. “It doesn’t really change much from that.”
In fact, there are only eight active drivers who have won at Martinsville since 2011: Jimmie Johnson three times, Kyle Busch twice and Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano once each.
Cup drivers will be using the new competition package at Martinsville with roughly 750 horsepower and increased downforce through the implementation of a larger spoiler, leading Hamlin to predict a possible track record due to higher cornering speeds.
But Hamlin doesn’t expect the new rules to change the list of contenders for the coveted grandfather clock trophy.
“It doesn’t really matter what the package is,” Hamlin said. “You always continue to kind of race against the same guys. I think there’s a technique there. Sometimes somebody different will hit it and be in contention, but ultimately, it seems like the race winners are all the same group.”
All told, Hamlin has five victories at the track. Johnson has nine wins, most among active drivers, but he hasn’t finished better than 12th since picking up his ninth victory in the fall race of 2016.
JOHNNY SAUTER: THE SECRET TO MARTINSVILLE IS HARD TO EXPLAIN
Like Denny Hamlin, Johnny Sauter has an exceptional record at Martinsville Speedway, with four victories and a pole in 22 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series starts at the .526-mile short track.
Sauter and Hamlin feature similar backgrounds, learning their craft on asphalt short tracks, but beyond that, Sauter is at a loss to explain why certain drivers excel at Martinsville and others never solve the mystery of one of NASCAR’s most enigmatic venues.
“I think for a lot of us, it’s similar to what we grew up doing,” Sauter said on Friday during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the speedway. “Our background has been around this kind of racing, or this type of atmosphere or whatever you want to call it.
“I know it is for me. I’ve always been partial to short tracks. It’s fun. I’ve been fortunate to win at mile-and-a-half’s and Daytona and all those places, but when you win here, you feel like it’s a big feather in your cap.
“But to answer your question, I don’t know. Me, personally, I think it’s about equipment and that feel you’re looking for as a driver—and I seem to get it sometimes.”
Sauter was eighth fastest in Friday’s final Truck Series practice, but his strength at the speedway typically manifests itself in long-run speed.
CLINT BOWYER LOOKS FOR ANOTHER JUMP-START AT MARTINSVILLE
When Clint Bowyer won last year’s spring race at Martinsville Speedway, it was the perfect antidote to a disappointing debut season at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Five races into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Bowyer is looking for another rally, after an overheating issue at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) left him 38th in the Auto Club 400 and 15th in the series standings.
NASCAR’s shortest track may be the ideal venue for Bowyer, whose win last year followed several impressive at the .526-mile speedway.
“I’ve felt like I’m someone that’s capable of winning at Martinsville for several years,” Bowyer said. “It felt good to finally check that box. When I look at race tracks, that was always one that I said, ‘Damn it. I can win at that place.’ And we finally did.”
With another victory at Martinsville, Bowyer would earn another grandfather clock trophy to go with the last year’s prize, but the way the driver of the No. 14 Ford sees it, that might be a mixed blessing.
“It’s super cool,” Bowyer added. “But it’s a pain in the ass. I’m not lying. It dings and chimes and stuff, but it’s a good reminder of that day and what we accomplished that day.”