Hamlin, a four-time winner at the 0.526-mile paper clip, rolled his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota off the trailer and promptly put up a speed in first practice that was third fast behind only Jeff Gordon and Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch.
Alas, Happy Hour was a considerably less happy affair for the Virginia native, as he was just 27th fastest with Busch 29th and Joey Logano 30th in the third and final JGR Toyota.
Saturday afternoon, he rebounded and qualified third for tomorrow’s race, capping two days of up and down moments.
It’s been that kind of year for Hamlin, who opened 2012 with a fourth-place run in the Daytona 500 and a victory in Phoenix, but then failed to finish in the top 20 in the next three races.
Given his stellar record at Martinsville, where he has nine top fives in just 13 starts, Hamlin is expecting big things on Sunday. Starting near the front will help.
“When we come here, obviously we expect to win and we feel like we can every time we come in through the tunnel,” said Hamlin. “It's always been a great race track for us. Even the times where it shows we finished bad, I know that we led at some point during that day and we were competitive. Really, based off our performances, definitely our best race track that we're coming to.”
Crew chief Darian Grubb is equally optimistic.
“I feel like the FedEx Toyota is pretty strong,” Grubb said prior to qualifying Saturday. “... I feel like we should have pretty good speed tomorrow.”
Grubb, of course, won a Sprint Cup championship with Tony Stewart last year, but was told before the Chase for the Sprint Cup that he wouldn’t return to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2012.
JGR was quick to snatch Grubb up for Hamlin and so far the pairing has worked.
“What he's brought to us is obviously a lot of knowledge and a lot of race wins — just a different way of thinking basically,” Hamlin said of Grubb. “He thinks a little bit further outside the box than we do as far as setups he runs. We're trying to incorporate the two and figure out which ones better for me — what I had been running or what he is used to running. You try to work through that stuff during a race weekend.”
And that remains very much a work in progress.
“Until we go back to those tracks twice, it's almost like a new season for us,” said Hamlin. “We're going to all these race tracks where he's got his notebook, we have ours and we don't know which one to distinguish to run unless it's a track like this where we know what we have is good. Until we go back to these tracks for a second time, I think that's where we're really going to be strong. That's when I expect the race win column to pick up.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.