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.