Here are some storylines and drivers to watch in today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway:
Closing in on a Milestone
In this race in 1984, Geoff Bodine took a Rick Hendrick-owned car to Victory Lane for the first time. Twenty eight years later, and Hendrick Motorsports is on the cusp of win number 200. Appropriately, that milestone may come at a track where the organization has won at more than any other – 18 times total spread among four drivers (Bodine, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson).
But not all memories at Martinsville are good ones for Hendrick. In 2004, the team owner's son, Ricky, was killed nearby when the plane he was on crashed en route to the track – along with Hendrick's brother, two nieces and six others. Good or bad, Martinsville will always hold a special place in the hearts of everyone associated with Hendrick Motorsports.
Brian Vickers's Redemption Tour Continues
For the first time since his remarkable fifth-place run two weeks ago at Bristol, Brian Vickers is back behind the wheel of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing car. And his return just so happens to coincide with the series returning to Martinsville, where last October Vickers was directly involved in bringing out five of the 18 yellow flags, one which entailed him intentionally wrecking championship contender Matt Kenseth.
Now with a little time and some perspective, Vickers is ready to put those tumultuous events behind him and hopes others can do the same. Another good result like he had at Bristol will go a long way to do just that.
To Thrive, You Must Survive
At Martinsville where beating and banging and sometimes blatantly wrecking a competitor is a way of life, to finish first, one must first finish. Because of the tight confines, wrecks happen frequently often involving multiple cars. With drivers not afraid of using their bumpers, they have to be weary of caving in the nose of their car and thus preventing their engine from cooling properly.
And it's not just their fenders and noses a driver has to be protective of, as throughout the afternoon you will hear many a crew chief warn his driver to save the brakes, a key element to success at Martinsville due the track's long straights and tight corners.
• Kevin Harvick, who won this race last year, will be making his 400th career Sprint Cup start this afternoon.
• Points leader Greg Biffle has scored just two top-10s in 18 career Martinsville starts with a best finish of seventh.
• Tony Stewart will be wheeling the same chassis he won here with last fall, but in practice the defending Sprint Cup champion struggled to find speed and qualified 15th.
• Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have combined to win 16 of the last 18 Martinsville races.
1. Denny Hamlin
Anytime Denny Hamlin rolls into Martinsville, he is the man to beat – and with him qualifying third, it's apparent the speed is once again there for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. And the numbers the native Virginian has amassed at Martinsville – four wins, nine top-fives and 11 top-10s in 13 starts – speak volumes.
2. Jeff Gordon
It's been seven years since Jeff Gordon was awarded a Grandfather Clock, but after pacing both sessions of practice on Friday, the active Martinsville wins leader appears poised to score victory number eight this afternoon.
3. Kevin Harvick
In qualifying yesterday, Kevin Harvick clocked in the second-fastest time and when the defending winner of the Goody's Fast Relief 500 qualifies well, he typically runs well. This afternoon, there is no reason to think he won't be in contention to make it two in a row.
I'm not certain Dale Earnhardt Jr. technically qualifies as a sleeper, but then again he hasn't won a race in almost four years – so maybe he does. Regardless, pay attention to NASCAR's most popular driver, who finished second and seventh here last year and has eight top-10s in his last 12 starts on the giant paperclip.