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Friday, October 26, 2012
Johnson, Hamlin strongest at Martinsville

By Tom McKean and Matt Willis


Rob Grabowski/US PresswireCan Brad Keselowski hold off Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville to maintain his Chase lead?
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup rolls into Martinsville Sunday (ESPN, 2 ET) with Brad Keselowski pacing the field. He leads Jimmie Johnson by a slim seven-point margin and Denny Hamlin by 20, but that championship lead could vanish at the shortest venue on the Cup schedule.

History has shown that drivers need to have a good run here in order to win the Chase title. Of the eight prior Chase champions, four won the Martinsville Chase event, two finished second and no eventual champion finished worse than fifth.

That’s great news for Johnson and Hamlin, who have dominated recently at Martinsville. Among drivers with more than five starts at the track, only Hall of Famer Lee Petty has a better average finish there than those two drivers.

Johnson is Martinsville Master
Johnson’s 5.8 career average finish at Martinsville is the fourth-best in Cup Series history by a driver at any track with at least 20 starts. He’s also posted a 2.0 career average finish in Chase starts at Martinsville, and has four wins in eight events.

Since 2006, no one has been quicker at Martinsville than Johnson during the Chase. In that span, he's posted the fastest lap 425 times, 126 more than any other driver (fastest laps run are the amount of laps in which a driver was the fastest on the track).

Hamlin Holds Edge Recently
Similar to Keselowski, Hamlin is seeking his first career Cup title; but unlike the points leader, Hamlin has been very strong at Martinsville. He’s won three of the last six Martinsville races, and has 12 top-10 finishes at Martinsville in 14 starts.

Hamlin has also led 892 laps at Martinsville since 2009, the most among any Cup driver. Keselowski, meanwhile, has never finished better than ninth in five career Martinsville starts and has led only two laps.

Both of Keselowski’s wins in the Chase, however, have come at tracks where he had never won in Cup before (Chicago and Dover). He’s also posted eight victories since the start of 2011, which is tied with Tony Stewart for the most in Cup.

Earnhardt Jr. Returns
After being sidelined for two races with a concussion suffered at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been cleared to return to Cup this weekend. His 10 career top-5 finishes at Martinsville are his most at any Cup track, and he has finished seventh or better in his last four Martinsville starts.