Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson have been the standard-bearers at Martinsville Speedway over the past few seasons, but with Hamlin out with a back injury, it might allow one other Martinsville heavyweight to get back to victory lane.
That driver is Jeff Gordon, and he could use a victory on Sunday for a multitude of big-picture reasons. This is the third straight season that Gordon has gotten off to a slow start -- sitting 18th in the championship standings -- the result of bad luck and general lackluster performance out of the veteran team and driver.
In 2011, Gordon won at Phoenix in the second race of the season but just couldn't carry the momentum in the following events and entered Martinsville 16th in the standings. His 2012 season, full of misfortune, has been well-documented and saw him enter that race 24th.
He wasn't able to close out on victories in either Martinsville race and has taken until deep in the summer to establish momentum in recent seasons. Gordon would prefer to not to dig himself into an early hole, and Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway could provide that opportunity.
Gordon's record at Martinsville speaks for itself.
In 40 starts at the Virginia half-mile, he has seven wins, 25 top-5s and 32 top-10s. He has been running at the finish in all 40 races, and the four-time Cup Series champion has led 3,515 laps at the track. Only Cale Yarborough has led more with 3,784 -- a difference of 269 laps. Gordon could eclipse that mark on Sunday and could establish some much-needed momentum with a victory.
Gordon has missed the Chase for the Championship only once in his career -- in 2005 -- but having to rebound from slow starts year-in and year-out has to be taking its toll on the 41-year-old. If Gordon is to make one last charge at a fifth championship, he has to take advantage of tracks, like Martinsville, where he is easily one of the top statistical performers in NASCAR.
A similar statement could have been said about Gordon's performance at Bristol a few weeks ago. Gordon entered that race with five wins and a 10th-place average finish at that track. Instead of carrying his strategy to a top-five, he melted a bead on his tire and finished outside of the top-30.
That's the difference between Gordon, the championship contender of old, and the old Jeff Gordon of 2013. Gordon had tracks he just couldn't figure out even during his heyday with Ray Evernham, but capitalizing on short tracks and road courses delivered him his four Series championships. The same model should apply to his current "Drive for Five."
With Hamlin on the sidelines for this race, Gordon will likely have to fend off Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon has contended for the win at Martinsville in virtually every race he has ever competed on at the half-mile.
Winning on Sunday would be a major coup, but at worse, he just has to finish and get the best possible result if he's ever going to chase the championship one more time in his career.