- Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2011 18:05
- Published on Tuesday, 05 April 2011 18:05
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Kevin Harvick is quickly earning a reputation as the best closer on the circuit.
A week ago in California, the only lap Harvick won was the last one. Last Sunday, he led the last four. It was Harvick’s second win in a row this season and took the limelight off race favorites, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch was strong and up-front most of the day, for Hamlin it was a
disappointing 12th place finish.
If you’re good at Martinsville Speedway, it’s not a gift that goes away. Consider Denny Hamlin and reigning five-time Sprint Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson. Heading into last Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500, Hamlin and Johnson had owned Martinsville for the past nine races, dating back to the fall 2006 event. Johnson has five wins and Hamlin four, including the last three in a row.
No doubt there is a real art to getting a heavy stock car around a short track. Hamlin, Johnson, and Kyle Busch have combined to win the last 15 short track races, a streak that began with the fall 2008 event at Richmond International Raceway.
Kyle Busch at Martinsville, however, is another story. Lately he’s owned the high-banked .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway, winning five of its last nine Cup Series events. A few hundred miles east at the tiny flat Martinsville track, he’s still looking for the magic.
“Martinsville has been getting better for us,” Busch said last week following his win at Bristol. In twelve starts in a Cup car at Martinsville Busch has notched five top fives, and six top ten finishes, but has yet to visit victory lane. “We’re getting there. Thanks to crew chief Dave Rogers, we’ve really worked hard at that. We kind of feel like we have a baseline, a better baseline that we can unload with and be faster off the truck. That’s a big benefit for us.” Busch logged a career-best fourth place finish at last fall’s Martinsville race.
After an outstanding 2010 season that saw Denny Hamlin garner a circuit-leading eight wins and go right down to the season’s final race before narrowly losing the championship to Jimmie Johnson, the 2011 season has been one frustrating weekend after another. A race weekend at the tiny Martinsville paper clip looked like just what the doctor ordered. Heading into last Sunday’s race, Hamlin had won the three consecutive events at the historic Virginia short track. A fourth straight win would tie Hamlin with Fred Lorenzen as the only drivers to win four consecutive cup races at Martinsville. Lorenzen’s win streak was back in 1963-65.
Hamlin headed into Martinsville a disappointing 21st in the series standings, the worst start of his six year Cup career. Finishes of 21st at Daytona, 11th at Phoenix, 7th at Las Vegas, 33 at Bristol, and 39 at California’s Auto Club Speedway have gotten the FedEx team playing a serious game of catch-up. The situation is aggravated and at least partially due to Joe Gibbs Racing’s engine problems. The word last week was that their engine department has diagnosed the problem as in the valve train.
Hamlin’s team changed engines before both the season opening Daytona 500, and the season’s third race at Las Vegas, where he finished a season-high seventh place on a backup engine. At California, it was another engine problem that knocked Hamlin out of the race early and gave him a 39th place finish. The California engine failure cost the team four places in the standings
Last season Hamlin was in 19th place after the first five races, but came back to win the next two at Martinsville and Texas, despite Hamlin’s knee surgery the day after his Martinsville win. “The uplifting part is I’m going to some really, really good race tracks for us,” Hamlin said in the garage after dropping out of the race in California. “With this new points system, you can get in the chase based on wins if for some reason we can’t work our way back to the top ten.”