Martinsville Speedway is one of the toughest and most exciting tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, producing the type of fender-banging action fans expect from stock-car racing.

At Martinsville, drivers have to be physical, but also race with finesse, soft-pedaling brakes and protecting their equipment for an often frantic dash to the finish.

It’s also a track that has been dominated by two drivers the past four years.

Can anyone stop Denny Hamlin’s and Jimmie Johnson’s growing collections of grandfather clocks?

Three Things To Watch

1. Brakes.

Nowhere are brakes more critical than at the tight, half-mile track. Teams work for months to develop the right brake package for Martinsville, and those that miss the mark typically don’t survive the race. Look for several drivers, including some top contenders, to have brake problems, and fade late.

2. Has Joe Gibbs Racing solved its engine woes?

All three Gibbs drivers have had an engine failure during a race, with motor problems sidelining Denny Hamlin last week at California. JGR also has had some kind of engine problem every weekend this year.

Though a short track, Martinsville is tough on engines, with cars producing big surges of rpms down the short straightaways. Engine overheating problems are common in the close-quarters style of racing.

Surviving on all eight cylinders could be a challenge for some teams, with the three Gibbs teams suddenly at the top of the list.

3. Can anyone beat Denny Hamlin?

Hamlin has owned Martinsville the past two years, sweeping both events last season and winning four of the past six races there. He won this race last year despite giving up the lead to pit with seven laps remaining.

This is Hamlin’s favorite track and the place where he typically jumpstarts his season. He’s off to a slow start again and looking for the Martinsville race to get him over the hump.

Who’s Hot ….

Jimmie Johnson – He’s finished second and third in his last two races and is headed to his favorite track.

Kyle Busch – A week after winning at Bristol, he dominated last week’s race at California. Can he handle the tough short track at Martinsville?

Ryan Newman – Scored his third top-five and fourth top-10 last week to leap to second in points.

Kevin Harvick – Last week’s last-lap pass for the win has him riding high heading to a track where he typically runs well.

Who’s Not

Trevor Bayne – His surprising Daytona 500 victory earned the Wood Brothers team enough cash to run this weekend’s race at its hometown track, but Bayne has struggled since his big win.

Joey Logano – Struggled again last week and is stuck in 29th in points. What happened to last year’s strong finish?

Jamie McMurray – Finished 23rd at California and is 28th in points. Last year’s magic is gone.

Jeff Gordon – Hasn’t sniffed the top 10 since winning at Phoenix.

Jeff Burton – Last week’s 15th-place finish was his best of the season. Bad luck and poor performance have put him squarely behind the other RCR teams.

The Favorites

1. Denny Hamlin – Virginia native has been unbeatable at Martinsville since dethroning Jimmie Johnson there.

2. Jimmie Johnson – He owned the tiny short track before the pesky Hamlin came along.

3. Mark Martin – He’s won there twice and was closing fast on Hamlin when the checkered flag flew in October.

4. Jeff Gordon – He’s got seven career wins there and now has Martin’s crew chief and crew from last year. A good combination.

Winningest Active Drivers

Jeff Gordon 7
Jimmie Johnson 6
Denny Hamlin 4
Mark Martin 2
Tony Stewart 2
Jeff Burton 1
Kurt Busch 1
Bobby Labonte 1

By The Numbers

45 Drivers who have won Cup races at Martinsville. There have been 124 Cup races at the .526-mile track, the first in the series’ inaugural year, 1949. Richard Petty has the most wins with 15.

Staff Picks

Kenny Bruce

Ryan Newman – One of several drivers who have never won at Martinsville despite running quite well there. And his team's been surprisingly strong this year.

Kris Johnson

Denny Hamlin – Favorite alert! No better place for Hamlin to turn his season around than Martinsville.

Jeff Owens

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Get ready Junior Nation, this could be the week. Earnhardt Jr., who has been making steady progress with new crew chief Steve Letarte, led 90 laps and finished seventh at Martinsville in October. A late gamble on track position might put him in position to snap that long winless streak.

Bob Pockrass

Jeff Gordon – I like the Alan Gustafson-Gordon combination at Martinsville. If Gustafson can get Mark Martin to go around that place fast - a track that isn't one of Martin's favorites - he'll be able to get Gordon around there even quicker.

Last Time Around: Denny Hamlin rallies to win at Martinsville, closes in on Jimmie Johnson in tight Chase battle

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The sixth race of the Chase For The Sprint Cup was billed as a showdown between Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin – No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the Chase – at a track the two have dominated the past four years.

But with a 41-point lead over Hamlin in the Chase, Johnson, the four-time defending champion, held the advantage entering a race one of them was expected to win.

In the eyes of many, if Johnson won for the sixth time at Martinsville, the points race was practically over. To many, if he just held serve against Hamlin, it was a big step toward a fifth straight championship.

Not anymore.

“Who said it was over?” Hamlin yelled as he sat down for his winner’s interview after a third straight win at Martinsville. “I told you it wasn’t over.”

It’s not. In fact, it’s game on.

Hamlin’s third straight win at Martinsville, coupled with Johnson’s fifth-place finish, allowed Hamlin to close within six points of Johnson to forge the closest points battle in Chase history with four races remaining.

And after a surprising third-place finish by Kevin Harvick, it’s still a three-team race. Harvick gained 15 points on Johnson and is just 62 points out of the lead.

Hamlin, who started on the pole, struggled early, falling deep in the field and looking like his streak of dominance at Martinsville was over. But he rallied and passed Harvick for the lead with 30 laps remaining.

Hamlin beat a fast-closing Mark Martin by 2.318 seconds while Harvick wound up third followed by Kyle Busch and Johnson.