When Denny Hamlin won at Martinsville Speedway in March, he entered the race knowing he was going to have surgery on his knee in a few days and face a painful recovery.
He won that event but now returns to his best track with even more pressure – trailing Jimmie Johnson by 41 points with five races left in the Chase For The Sprint Cup.
Hamlin, though, says he feels no pressure going to the track where he and Johnson have won the last eight races.
“I’m not nervous at all going into Martinsville,” Hamlin said during a teleconference Tuesday. “For me, I would be more nervous if I was the 48 car [of Johnson] going into Martinsville … because we won the last two races there. He didn’t have the spring race he was hoping for.
“We are going out there to be on the offense. He’s going to try to go out there and win the race as well. But for me, he’s going to have to beat us to do it. I feel like we’re going to be strong when we get there. It’s going to take a lot to beat us there.”
In his victory in March, Hamlin pitted for four tires with seven laps remaining and restarted ninth with four laps left in regulation. The race turned physical with lots of beating and banging for position and went eight laps past the scheduled distance after another late caution flag. Hamlin took the lead when Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth collided on the final restart.
So far in the Chase, Hamlin has resisted being that physical, but says that could change this weekend in a similar situation.
“I had just gotten tires,” Hamlin said. “None of those guys were on [new] tires. Everyone was really struggling in front of me. I stuck it three-wide a couple of times that normally I probably wouldn’t have.
“If that same situation comes up in the Chase, I will probably drive it the same, because your margin of error on a shorter track is a little bit larger than what it is on a mile-and-a-half, 2-mile race track. You make a mistake on those, and you’re in the wall, your car is done and finished.”
Hamlin said he was determined to win the race in March for his first victory of the season.
“No matter what, we were going to win that race, tires or no tires,” Hamlin said.
The decision was a fairly easy one, Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford said.
“Tires there were [worth] over a half-second a lap – it was crazy,” Ford said following the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Saturday. “Four of the last six races had gone green-white-checkereds, so what’s going to happen here? If we don’t [get tires], somebody else will. Odds are, it’s going to go multiple [restarts].”
Ford is bringing a new car to the track this weekend as the team has rolled out a set of new cars the last couple of months.
“When you’re good over a long period of time at a place, it’s difficult to change,” Ford said. “You’ve got a target on you, so you have to almost work harder than at places where you’re playing catch-up because it can be a huge negative impact where you are expected to run well and you don’t.
“It can just kill your momentum. … It’s going to be a difficult race. I’m not making any predictions.”
The Chase likely is down to Johnson, Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (77 points behind Johnson), the only drivers within 150 points of the leader.
Hamlin has been proud of the way his team has performed in the Chase and said Johnson isn’t the only one to come back from adversity.
“A lot of people like to give Jimmie a lot of praise for what he does,” Hamlin said. “He deserves it, he’s a four-time champion. But for myself, we’ve had to overcome starting worse than him pretty much every week. We’ve had to overcome crashes, things like that that’s happened right in front of us. We’ve gotten spun the first Chase race and come back to second.
“For me, that’s what we have to do. I feel like we’ve executed really perfectly in this Chase so far. We wish we had a few more spots here and there at a couple of race tracks. But I feel like we’ve executed everything that we’ve set out to do.”
With five races remaining, Hamlin says he is relaxed.
“For me, [I’m] more relaxed going out there and saying I’m going to go out there and gain points this week versus, ‘Let’s just manage a good finish and not lose a certain amount of points,’” Hamlin said. “So for me, it’s more relaxed than really I’ve ever been.”