It has been a chaotic season for Denny Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season with a back injury sustained at Auto Club Speedway and has only collected one Top-10 finish in the last 18 events.
But this weekend’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 powered by Kroger at Martinsville Speedway may present a great opportunity for the beleaguered Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
With four victories there in his Sprint Cup career – the most recent of which came in the fall of 2010 – as well as nine Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes, Hamlin is coming to one of his best tracks.
A fifth Martinsville win for Hamlin would make history on several fronts. It would mark the first time that a driver outside the Chase for the Sprint Cup has won a post-season event at the track, and it would also mark the first time that non-Chase competitors have won on three consecutive post-season weekends (Brad Keselowski, two races ago at Charlotte; Jamie McMurray on Sunday at Talladega).
But more importantly, a Hamlin triumph would rob Chase leader Jimmie Johnson of at least some precious points he needs to stay ahead of Hamlin’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, who sits four points behind going into a track that hasn’t been an especially good one for him (no wins, three Top-5s in 27 starts).
As noted by Micah Roberts of The Sporting News, Kenseth may have to focus on keeping his deficit to Johnson manageable if Johnson is his usual Martinsville self (eight career wins, average finish of 5.3) – and Hamlin could lend him a hand if he’s given a No. 11 JGR Toyota that can contend.
It may be asking too much of Hamlin and the No. 11 team, who have likely been racing with one eye toward 2014 for some time now. But based on their past body of work at Martinsville, a surprise from them this weekend is by no means a far-fetched prospect.
MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field. Finishing sixth in 2015 after a late rally was Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda
- 2014: 6th Place, 3 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 195 Laps Led, 10.2 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish
- 2015: 6th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 71 Laps Led, 12.2 Avg. Start, 10.4 Avg. Finish
The old adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” would probably be the best way to sum up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2015 season, which until the final quarter of season could best be described as a forgettable nightmare.
The first three races seemed somewhat OK, with eighth, seventh and fourth place grid spots. But none of the three produced a result of note; Hunter-Reay was also caught up in the three-car, late race accident at NOLA Motorsports Park and didn’t bank any good finish until a fifth place at Barber the end of April.
A tailspin followed. Hunter-Reay started between 14th and 21st every race between the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Milwaukee – a stretch of eight races – and only had one top-10 finish in that stint, eighth at the rain-affected lottery that was Detroit race two. Some seasons are just ones you want to end and by Milwaukee it was obvious that Hunter-Reay was racing just to get to the end of the year, without things getting any worse.
Things finally came good with a typically good drive at Iowa and arguably one of the drives of his career, two races later at Pocono, to end with two wins and extend his streak of winning a race in each of his six seasons at Andretti Autosport. It was no coincidence, either, that Hunter-Reay’s uptick in form came with the return of the late Justin Wilson’s presence in a fourth car.
After Pocono, Hunter-Reay also drove well to finish second at Sonoma, and by that point he’d completed an incredible late-season turnaround to jump from 14th to sixth in points. But if asked, he’d probably admit this was his toughest season yet at Andretti and arguably his toughest overall since his 2009 season, when he was in-between full-time rides and saw out the year with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.
MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.
Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet
- 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
- 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.
Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.
Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.
The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.
As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.