Sunday at the Martinsville Speedway Denny Hamlin will be looking to make a statement, or maybe two.
Hamlin heads to the half-mile paper clip, his home track, coming off two DNF finishes which have taken him out of championship contention for this season. What that means is that now he has nothing to lose if he is looking to resettle a score with an old rival.
A rival that happens to be chasing his fourth championship and third straight win.
In April, Hamlin was leading with 19 laps when Jimmie Johnson got to his inside heading into turn three. Johnson bounced it off the curb, and then bounced off Hamlin to take the lead and the win.
Many expected Hamlin to be furious and to pay Johnson back as soon as possible, but instead he told the viewers in his post-race interview that it was just hard racing and that “If the roles were reversed, I’d do the same thing—and believe me, I will if it ever comes back around.”
It appeared Hamlin filed the event away for later use. And when he moved Johnson from the lead at Chicagoland in July he mentioned the Martinsville incident, saying he was just racing for the win.
But payback won’t really be served unless it’s back at the scene of the first crime. Now, it’s "come back around" and Hamlin and Johnson will no doubt be at the front at a track at which they both run very well.
Johnson, however, can’t take any risks by messing with Hamlin as he heads to Martinsville with the points lead, but Hamlin can certainly play a role in Johnson's Chase hopes.
For Hamlin, though, to pull off the victory would not only be sweet revenge, but it would do wonders for his and the No. 11 team's confidence as a whole. After getting off to a slow start in the 2009 season, Hamlin went winless until Pocono in June.
Then they cruised into the Chase by dominating at Richmond and finally picking up a win there. After the first Chase race in New Hampshire, he was third in points and just under 40 markers from the lead. But since the second race at Dover they’ve headed downhill in performance and in the standings.
At California, Hamlin said he made a rookie mistake when, leading on a restart, he tried to pull down in front of Juan Pablo Montoya to block. He wasn’t clear of the 42 car and ended up spinning through the grass and hitting the inside wall.
He was credited with a 37th place finish.
This past weekend in Lowe’s Hamlin was very optimistic about his chances in the Bank of America 500, leading 58 laps early and seeming to be heading toward contending for the win. But the car that Hamlin said was the best he's had there wasn’t able to hold up as an engine failure ended his night.
He was credited with 42nd place finish.
“A championship just isn’t meant to be for us this year,” he said after the race. “I’m sorry to all my fans and everyone at FedEx. You guys deserve the best.”
Hamlin’s now 11th in points, 372 out of the first with five races remaining. With his championship hopes gone, it’s all about wins and trying to end the season on a high note.
No better place to get that accomplished than Martinsville this Sunday.
Not only are Denny Hamlin fans ready for red hot dogs and 500 laps around the paper clip, but the folks at Joe Gibbs Racing are as well. Shortly after Hamlin was declared out of the race, the JGR Twitter page updated to “We all know Denny Hamlin will rule Martinsville next weekend.”
On Sunday Oct. 18, one week before the Oct. 25 running of the Tums Fast Relief 500, Hamlin made it clear that he was already in a Virginia state of mind.
Hamlin wrote on his personal page, “Watching football…and surfing the net. Is it Martinsville time yet??”
Whichever driver wants to take home the checkered flag on Sunday will most likely have to take it from the very determined hometown hero.