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Notebook: Hendrick dominance at Martinsville continues
Earnhardt Jr. struggles
Car owner Rick Hendrick walks up to Jimmie Johnson’s car after his burnout on the front stretch following his victory in the STP Gas Booster 500 Sprint Cup series race on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
There’s just something about Martinsville Speedway that seems to fit the Hendrick Motorsports racing team quite naturally.
And Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 was no different than countless other races at the half-mile oval. The team placed three of its four drivers in the top-five, including another win by Jimmie Johnson — his eighth. Jeff Gordon was right behind in third. Combined, they have 15 wins at the historic track.
The win broke a tie with Richard Petty Racing with 20 all time.
“I’m guessing Hendrick has got something figured out pretty good here,” Gordon said. “You know, I mean, the first time I drove for Rick, I knew how good their equipment was everywhere we went. The teams, they just do such a good job. We hit on some things years ago for us here, but they had success prior to me getting there, and then I think the No. 48 has been able to take the success that we had and really build on it.”
Hendrick’s first win came at Martinsville, and looked to have milestone win No. 200 locked up last spring until a 3-wide wreck in Turn 1 with Johnson, Gordon and Clint Bowyer ruined the day, which was dominated by the No. 48 and No. 24.
Sunday it was clockwork for HMS, earning win No. 212.
“The first time I came to a Cup race was here with my dad and we’ve been very fortunate to have some great drivers and this track has been awfully good to us,” owner Rick Hendrick said. “I knew we were tied with Petty after our last win, and I’m really proud of these guys and the organization. I was worried we were going to end up like we did this race last year when that last caution came out. It played out and it was a great day for us.”
Johnson has been impressive at Martinsville winning the last two races at the paper-clip shaped track — the shortest track on the Sprint Cup circuit.
“We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that,” Johnson said. “This track can play tricks on you, but we stuck to our game plan, knew what we wanted to do in the race, stayed patient and certainly worked out well. Just a very well executed weekend by the whole No. 48 team.”
Gordon also said that wins like this really mean a lot to his owner.
“I know that these types of stats and records mean a lot to him, you know, and he deserves it,” Gordon said. “They’ve got an awesome organization and work very hard at it. It’s great to be a part of it.”
Earnhardt Jr. falls off pace
Coming in as the 2013 points leader, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hoping to have another solid run at Martinsville and retain his points lead. The No. 88 car was floating inside and just outside the top-10 for more than half the race, even moving up to as good as fifth just past the 300 lap mark.
But as the race went on, Earnhardt slowly started drifting back in the pack and eventually wound up in his starting spot of 17th and then even worse.
The pinnacle of his afternoon came on lap 267 when he got pushed high into Turn 4 and spun by Danica Patrick, who was bumped up the track from behind by Brian Vickers. Eventually finishing 24th, Earnhardt gave up the top spot to teammate Jimmie Johnson in the standings, falling to third, 12 points behind.
“We were line up on the inside of 1 and 2 and Vickers hit me and hit me into Dale, and Dale got sideways and then went down the track straight and was trying to put me down in the wall on the inside of 3 but went around sideways and spun,” Patrick said. “I wasn’t trying to lose any friends out there, that’s for sure. It was tight, like it is, bumper to bumper, and I just got hit from behind. You know, it’s Martinsville right.”
Martin fills in well for Denny Hamlin
After a tough qualifying run Friday that landed Mark Martin with a 35th starting position Sunday, the driver filling in for the No. 11 FedEx Toyota normally driven by Denny Hamlin used his veteran knowledge to methodically make his move up the leaderboard eventually finishing 10th.
Martin first moved inside the top 10 at the halfway point, but then quickly found himself back to 26th and in the low 20s inside the final 15 of the race. He then started his charge down the home stretch, holding off a stingy Danica Patrick for a top 10 position.
“It wasn’t a great result — we were capable of a little bit better, but we just kept stumping our toe on Friday and then we had a setback when we were about to get into position,” Martin said. “I just want to thank Joe Gibbs, I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much. (Hamlin) is the master, but I enjoyed this opportunity – it was fun.”
Brian Vickers, who will take over in the No. 11 until Hamlin returns finished a spot behind Martin, moving 10 spots over the final 50 laps. He just nipped Patrick at the line for 11th.
“Considering everything we had to come through it was a decent day to come in 11th,” Vickers said.
“I really hate it for Denny, I’ve been in his position before. I just want to get in the car and do the best I can for him and the FedEx Toyota and Gibbs till he returns.”