Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, two of the most successful drivers in recent seasons at Martinsville Speedway, will start Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 from dramatically different locations.
Hamlin, a winner four times in the past four years at the sport’s shortest track, will start third Sunday after qualifying at 97.003 miles per hour Saturday. Johnson, who has wrestled with his Chevrolet all weekend, will start 22nd as he searches for a seventh win at Martinsville.
For a nine-race run between the fall of 2006 and the fall of 2010, either Johnson or Hamlin won every Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart ended that unusual streak last year, Harvick winning the spring race and Stewart using a fall win at Martinsville to aid his run to the championship.
By day’s end, Hamlin, Johnson, Stewart and Hamlin are likely to have something to say about which driver wins Sunday’s 500-lap marathon. Kasey Kahne also might figure into that discussion.
Kahne has had strong cars through the opening weeks of his first season with Hendrick Motorsports but has been bitten by the bad-luck bug and sits 27th in points. But he won the pole Saturday for Sunday’s race and will be shooting for his first Martinsville victory.
“It’s good we have qualified well all year,” Kahne said. “We have had really fast Chevrolets. This whole Hendrick Motorsports team has done a great job. I’m happy where we are at right now.”
After winning three straight Martinsville races, Hamlin watched his domination end last year. This weekend, he’s trying a different setup for his Toyota.
"It's actually for a little more front-end speed,” he said. “I feel like, regardless, we've always been good on the long runs, but we struggled and we've gotten beat here before on the short run. Last year, we had what I felt like was a decently dominant car in the fall, and we got shuffled on some restarts and Tony (Stewart), who I was lapping 100 laps before, ended up winning the race.
“For us, we were getting beat on restarts, and that's where we needed to improve, and I think this setup should help that."
Coverage of Sunday’s race is scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. (ET) on FOX.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.