Four Kings Of Martinsville: Which NASCAR Driver Will Win In Virginia Today?

Baseball has Wrigley field, football has Lambeau Field and basketball has Madison Square Garden. Those magical iconic places that take you back to the sport's roots, when everything seemed much simpler.

For NASCAR, that place is Martinsville Speedway.

Seeing a race at Martinsville is like stepping into a time machine and going back to an era when the NASCAR schedule mainly consisted of races on bullring tracks throughout the southeast, and drivers regularly battled with their bumpers on the track and with their fists off of it.

Today, on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track famous for its hard racing and pink hot dogs, we will add a chapter to the Martinsville saga that began in 1949.

Adding to that narrative is over the years, great drivers have used Martinsville as a way to flex their superiority.

From Richard Petty and Fred Lorenzen going to Victory Lane a combined 14 times in the 60s, to Cale Yarborough winning four races in five starts in the 70s, to Darrell Waltrip dominating in the 80s, followed by Rusty Wallace owning the early to mid-90s, to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson and winning 16 of the last 18, Martinsville is not track that rewards the average driver.

To be considered great, a victory at Martinsville is a must on a driver's resumé.

"It's just different," Hamlin said during his Friday media session. "I don't know what it is and why some drivers struggle or why some drivers are better. I know why the drivers that are better, why they're better, but I'm not going to say that and tell you why.

"It's just a tough race track to figure out. Even though it's as small as it is, there are so many little things you can do to have good speed and have good speed over the long run here. It's hard to teach that."

This brings us back to the current Four Kings of Martinsville – Gordon, Stewart, Hamlin and Johnson. Three of the four are multi-time Sprint Cup champions, while Hamlin came painstakingly close to winning his first Cup title in 2010.

While it may be Kevin Harvick who enters this weekend as the defending winner of the Goody's Fast Relief 500, with all due respect to him, Sunday will likely end up being about the Four Kings.

For Stewart, he's looking to continue what has been the best start to his career, as the owner/driver has won two of the first five races in 2012 and dating back to last year and seven of the last 15 – including a victory here last October.

Another win and the defending Sprint Cup champion will be well on his way to securing a high seed in this year's Chase as he attempts to win back-to-back titles.

Winning used to be a word commonly associated with Johnson. Lately it's been a rarity for the man who from 2006-10 won five consecutive championships.

With just one victory in the past 33 races, questions have arisen as to whether something is amiss with the 48 team. But Johnson is having none of it.

"Growing up in racing, I didn't have this kind of success until I got to the Cup level," Johnson said. "It's not that I was ever happy with not winning, but you just learn how to deal with your emotions and you learn how to learn from experiences and get better and stronger at it. But nothing is eating at me.

"Right now I'm very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we're knocking on the door and we're running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that's going to give us chance to win."

His teammate at Hendrick Motorsports has far different concerns.

Not only is Gordon not winning, he's been riddled with bad luck. First, a blown motor while in the top five in the season-opening Daytona 500, then later wrecking at Bristol after contact with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. In between the bouts of ill fortune, Gordon has struggled to find the handle on his Chevrolet.

And while a win today would be wonderful on a variety of levels, more than anything it will go a long way to help Gordon climb out of the points hole in which he finds himself, as the active Martinsville leader in wins (seven) sits a woeful 25th in the driver standings.

"Right now it is just about putting the whole race together," Gordon said Saturday at Martinsville. "It's about having the car that we need and then making sure that we don't make mistakes.

"I don't think we are that far away from winning races I will be honest. I think we just have to eliminate the mistakes and we have a lot of races left to be able to pull that off."

Unlike the other kings, Hamlin's reasons for wanting to win are far more personal. The Virginia native grew up watching races and later competing on the legendary half-mile as he worked his way up the NASCAR ladder.

All of which explains why he thrives racing in front of his home state fans on a track in which he's visited the winner's circle on four occasions, including a stretch where he won three in a row.

"When we come here, obviously we expect to win and we feel like we can every time we come in through the tunnel," Hamlin said. "It's always been a great race track for us. Even the times where it shows we finished bad, I know that we led at some point during that day and we were competitive.

"Really, based off our performances, this is definitely our best race track that we're coming to."

If you're skilled enough to collect a Martinsville checkered flag, a prize befitting a king is awaiting you in Victory Lane: A handcrafted Grandfather Clock

"Absolutely, who doesn't want one?," Gordon said. "It's a great trophy and it's a great race track. You have to work hard. You put yourself in a good position to win this race and it's a challenge from the first time you are on the track all the way to the final lap of the race. It is certainly not easy to get those clocks."

The same statement could have easily been declared by Stewart, Hamlin or Johnson. The only catch is there is just one Grandfather Clock to be awarded to Sunday's victor.

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