|Posted by: Buck on March 26, 2019 at 6:57am|
Martinsville Speedway is always a welcome site for Virginia native Denny Hamlin.
The pride of Chesterfield has racked up five victories in 26 career starts at the .526-mile short track, landing him ninth on the all-time Martinsville wins list and second among active drivers behind Jimmie Johnson’s nine triumphs. His 9.8 average finish makes it his third-best track by that measure, right behind Darlington Raceway and another Virginia short track, Richmond Raceway.
“I look forward to going to Martinsville every time,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, it’s one of my best tracks. With the strong runs we had in the spring and fall last year, I’m pretty optimistic that we can go out there and be good.”
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Between winning the Daytona 500 and earning finishes no worse than 11th in the first five events, Hamlin and new crew chief Chris Gabehart have started strong in their maiden season together with the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
For Hamlin, Gabehart brings his excitement level up a notch because he comes from an extensive short-track racing background, which bodes well for the pairing’s first short-track experience together in Sunday’s STP 500 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“I’m excited so far with where I’m at with Chris — the mindset he has on these race tracks and the strategy he likes to pull and things like that,” Hamlin said. “He’s really smart and he’s obviously a short-track guy.”
Hamlin is hopeful to continue the momentum into the track dubbed “The Paperclip,” but despite all the previous success, Hamlin hasn’t visited Victory Lane since spring of 2015. That could very well be a product of other teams — including those of JGR teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — learning the tricks of the Martinsville trade, thanks to extensive data sharing.
“I think data sharing changed the game,” Hamlin said. “There are just no more secrets anymore. There’s no questions of ‘well, how does this guy drive?’ You can just look it up nowadays.
“Back in the old days, I remember we did a test with me, Joey (Logano) and Kyle (Busch), we all ran the same car 20-25 laps with the same set up and everything and it was like, ‘Well, why am I so much faster in the long run, why is Kyle so much faster in the short run?’ … But you didn’t have the true data that you can stare at now and pretty much mimic anyone’s style. Certainly, all the advantages I had on short tracks were taken away when the notebook was open.”
Since Hamlin’s last victory at Martinsville, Busch has scored a pair of wins, while Logano, Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer have all earned one apiece. But that doesn’t mean Hamlin hasn’t been right there to pounce, including last fall when he finished second by taking advantage of the no-holds, barred race to the finish line between Logano and Truex Jr.
So, could that play out again this time around? According to Hamlin, anything is possible.
“You never know,” Hamlin said. “I think it depends on the players that are in it. If there’s somebody that doesn’t think they’re going to get another win in the course of the season and that’s going to be their ticket to punch to the Playoffs, then certainly you’ll see a move like that.”
Despite teammates and other competitors closing the gap on Hamlin at his home track, Hamlin feels he will still naturally find his way to the front when it’s crunch time.
“There’s really five guys that are always up front in those races,” Hamlin said. “It doesn’t really change too much from that. … But it’s always been a track where if something crazy doesn’t happen, we’re always in contention there for a race win. … I’ve driven it the same, no matter the style or any data sharing. I’ve always stuck to what I know there and it’s been successful.”