FEUD OF THE WEEK:
They ended 2010 trash-talking and racing head to head for the Sprint Cup championship.
Going into 2011, they were expected to win races and battle for the title again.
So far, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have been relatively quiet and stayed out of each other’s way.
That could all change Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where the two drivers have combined to win the last nine Cup races.
Johnson dominated the track in 2006-2007, winning three straight races on the tiny, tight half-mile.
Hamlin beat him in the spring of 2008 for his first Martinsville victory, but Johnson came back and won again in the fall and again the following spring, bringing his career win total at Martinsville to six.
It’s been all Hamlin since then, with the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers winning three in a row, including a sweep of last year’s two races there.
Hamlin, a Virginia native, is now the driver to beat at the tough, legendary short track. Can anyone beat him and stop his streak there?
“Well, we know the 48 can. He's beat us there a few times,” Hamlin said last week. “I don't know how many years in a row now it's either been us or the 48 that's won at Martinsville. But we hope to keep that trend going.”
Johnson and Hamlin have been heading in opposite directions this season and both are looking at Martinsville as a race they can win to jumpstart their seasons and build some momentum.
Johnson has been up and down, but has three top-five finishes and nearly won Sunday’s race at California. He sits fifth in points, having gained seven spots the past two weeks.
Hamlin is off to a terrible start, scoring just one top-10 finish and suffering a variety of problems. An engine issue last week at California cost him four spots in the standings, dropping him to 21st.
He’s used to slow starts, however, and has had Martinsville circled on his calendar all season.
“[The] Martinsville spring race always seems to be the springboard for our season,” Hamlin said. “Whenever we have struggles for the first five races or so, Martinsville falls that fifth or sixth race of the season for us, and that's when we hit our momentum, as soon as we get there.
“For us, we're looking at that race track in particular to be the one that kind of sets our season in motion.”
Johnson, meanwhile, is trying to recapture the magic at Martinsville, where he has an average finish of 5.3 but finished ninth and fifth last year, his worst results there since 2005. He didn’t lead a lap in either Martinsville race last year for the first time in nine races there.
“The spring race did not go as we had hoped,” Johnson said last week. “The fall race, we ran really well, although I guess we didn’t lead a lap. I remember the 29 [Kevin Harvick], the 11 [Hamlin] and us racing real hard all day.
“I feel like we’re close. We probably don’t have the dominant car that we’ve had there in years past, or other teams have caught us. … The track has been good to us and we just need to find a little something there - a little bit goes a long way on that small of a track like that.”
Expect Hamlin and Johnson to resume their rivalry from last year and wind up racing each other head to head again – this time at their favorite track.