Winless Johnson, Hamlin look for turnaround at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) NASCAR's top series has had five different winners in five races this season, and as the Monster Energy Cup Series arrives at Martinsville Speedway and its first experience with stage racing rewarding drivers at three points during the race, the focus shifts to drivers who have yet to break through this year.

Neither Jimmie Johnson, who has taken home nine of the iconic grandfather clocks that go to the race winner on NASCAR's oldest, shortest and many say trickiest track, nor Denny Hamlin, the Virginia native with five victories on the .526-mile paper clip, has registered a top-five finish this season, but this is their place.

The only other driver in the field of 38 drivers with more than one victory here is Kurt Busch with two.

Johnson won here last October, and said his team's performance has been better than its results.

''I've made mistakes, the team has made mistakes, we've had some pit calls not work out in our favor, strategy, pit stops, so we've just got to stop making mistakes,'' the seven-time series champion said. ''That is really where we are at. ... I think we are right on the edge there of top five, top three car. We've just got to stop making mistakes and ring the bell in that area and then work forward and try to ring the bell for winning the race.''

Hamlin's last victory here came in this race two years ago, and while he answered ''one'' when asked Friday how many drivers are on par with him at this track, he said it's too early to panic about a slow start to 2017.

''We haven't really hit the heart of the season yet,'' he said. ''We've been to some very intricate type of racetracks that are a little different. Our season always starts off that way. But I think that really eight races in is when you can really look at the bigger picture and kind of figure out where you're at.''

Hamlin also expects the new stage racing system to make things more intense during Sunday's race.

''You're going to be going for every point,'' he said, speaking of the points that will be awarded to the leaders after the first 130 laps, the second 130 laps and the final 240 laps. ''... I think that it makes you race more intense right from the very beginning.''

The two drivers also drive for teams - Johnson with Hendrick Motorsports and Hamlin with Joe Gibbs Racing - that have been among the strongest in the sport in recent years, and none of their teammates has won a race, either.

Again, not to worry, Hamlin said.

''I think I know where we are at this point and the things we need to work on, and by no means are we at the top,'' he said of JGR teammates Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez, who collectively have just two top-five finishes, eight top 10s and have failed six races. ''We as a company have a good idea of where we're at, but I don't think people from the outside can really make a judgment until probably eight to nine races.''

It may not take that long. Points leader Kyle Larson followed three consecutive second-place finishes by winning last weekend at Fontana, California, but even though he was third here a year ago, the tire and brake wear and patience required to navigate the tight turns, cramped pit road and 500 laps remain a challenge to him.

''I'm glad to have a 29-point lead coming into Martinsville because this is my worst race track we go to, probably, even though we ran well last year,'' said Larson, who will be the pole sitter on Sunday after rain washed out Friday's qualifying. ''I've gotten better at it each time, but it's still not a track where I'm extremely comfortable. I can go fast in qualifying or early on tires, but I struggle at saving my stuff. I've got to get better at that. If we can get a top five or top 10 here, that would be a huge success.''

Johnson, meanwhile, has been so bad, he said he had a hard time remembering any of the other race winners except for Larson last week.

''I've been so far back,'' he said, laughing, ''I haven't paid attention to who has been to Victory Lane.''

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More AP racing coverage: http://racing.ap.org

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