This week's race has a fitting moniker. No, the Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville isn't a likely candidate to provide fast relief to some of the teams that have slumped in the young Sprint Cup Season. Rather, as one team celebrates a victory with their newly-won grandfather clock, more than a handful of other drivers and crew members will likely be running for the Goody's once the 500-lap parade around the paperclip ends and the survey of battered cars and bruised egos begins.
For Virginia native Denny Hamlin, however, a return to his home state could relieve him of his recent struggles.
Since winning last November at Texas, Hamlin has been stuck in a bit of a downward motion. He lost what looked to be a sure victory at Phoenix a week later, then blew a 15-point advantage at Homestead, giving the championship to Jimmie Johnson. So far this year, he's been all but an afterthought, recording just one top-ten finish in the third race of the year at Las Vegas. He looked like he might be ready to break through for at least a top-five Sunday in Fontana, leading fifteen laps after starting second, but the motor woes that have plagued Joe Gibbs Racing throughout this season ended his day far too early.
Martinsville, however, has been "Home, Sweet Home" for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota, even though his hometown of Chesterfield is geographically closer to Richmond International Raceway. After becoming a local star in late model races held at the .526-mile track, Hamlin has won four Sprint Cup races at Martinsville and carries a three-race winning streak at NASCAR's oldest track to this weekend. In last year's rain-delayed Goody's Fast Relief 500, he drove from ninth to first in the final laps in one of the most thrilling finishes of the 2010 season. Making his performance all the more impressive was the fact that just two days later, he had surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee, having torn it in an off-season basketball game and raced through the pain for six races.
Some of Hamlin's stiffest competition will likely come in the form of the men he succeeded as the dominator of Martinsville. Before his streak began, Jimmie Johnson had won four of the previous five events. The lone exception was Hamlin's first Martinsville win, in April 2008. Johnson himself had taken the torch from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who's seven wins at Martinsville lead all active drivers. Gordon, however, hasn't visited victory lane at the paperclip since October of 2005.
The best bet to knock Hamlin off, however, could be Jeff Burton. The Richard Childress Racing driver was a non-factor in the finishes to both races last year, but for much of each event, he looked like a potential winner. He led 274 laps between the two races, more than even Hamlin, who led 212 en route to his season sweep. A flat tire ruined his race in April, while he faded ninth at the end of the October race.
Of course, being a flat short track, the theme of the day will likely be car contact and plenty of it. It is rare that a car doesn't at least have one side blemished with dents and donuts. While casual contact has always been accepted as the nature of Martinsville, drivers have to refrain from excessively rubbing their competitors. For one, the threat of a cut tire is great; being forced to pit under green at Martinsville will cost a driver at least two and as many as three or four laps, depending on their place in the running order and how long it takes them to get their car to pit road. And if a flat tire doesn't get them, the driver they just roughed up might, bailing off into the corner and sending them into the SAFER barrier.
There are plenty of storylines to watch with every NASCAR event, and they seem to double at any short track. Check back with SB Nation Atlanta throughout the week for more coverage including entry list news, the weekend TV schedule, race-day stories to watch, and, of course, in-race updates.