With five races left in the season, the time is now. Hamlin trails Johnson by 41 points, but the Sprint Cup circuit stops Sunday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, which is one of Hamlin's best tracks. He won there in the spring on the strength of a daring charge from fourth to first over the final two laps -- two laps that have been among the most compelling of the entire season -- and he should be formidable again Sunday. "There's something about Martinsville that I just love," Hamlin says. "It suits me well"
NASCAR's oldest track (built in 1947) and shortest (.526 of a mile), Martinsville has been kind to the 29-year-old Hamlin. He has three career wins there and an average finish of 6.6, which makes Martinsville, statistically, his best track in the Chase. So what if Hamlin doesn't make up ground to Johnson in the points on Sunday? Should Hamlin start fretting? Will all of his long-designed plans go awry? Well, in a word, yes.
But I don't think that will happen. My tarot cards say Hamlin, who last season scored more points in the final five races in the Chase than any other driver, will earn his first victory of the 2010 playoffs at the paper-clip shaped track. He's been performing at a high level recently -- his fourth-place finish at Charlotte last Saturday night was a career best at the track -- and it appears he's poised to peak at the perfect time.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the engines rev on Sunday afternoon in the rolling hills of southern Virginia:
Barring a mechanical failure or getting caught up in accident, Johnson and Hamlin should be in the lead pack as the laps wind down Sunday. Johnson, after all, hasn't finished outside of the top 10 in 16 straight starts at Martinsville. Look for him to be far faster at the track than he was in the spring.
Harvick's team, Richard Childress Racing, was impressive at Martinsville in the spring. In fact, many in the garage will tell you this was the team to beat in March. But Harvick has never flashed much speed at this short track. In 18 career starts, he's never finished in the top-5 at Martinsville and his average finish is a pedestrian 18.1. His best hope for a good points day may be for both Hamlin and Johnson to suffer bad luck.
But it will be an upset if Gordon isn't very, very fast on Sunday. In what, to me, is one of the most impressive statistics I've seen about Martinsville, Gordon has authored 11 straight top-5 finishes at the track. Put simply, he's a Martinsville expert.
Will it happen on Sunday? Well, he came in fourth in this event last year. Then again, predicting how Busch will finish a race is risky business. No driver in the sport -- indeed, no driver in recent memory -- is as eminently capable of winning or wrecking on any given Sunday as the enigmatic Busch.