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NASCAR: Live from Martinsville

10/25/2013 - NASCAR

Hamlin on pole; front-runners up front

If the field wants to derail the Jimmie Johnson Martinsville Express, it's going to have some work to do.

On Friday afternoon, Denny Hamlin won the pole, his fourth of the season, for Sunday's 500-lap event at Martinsville Speedway with a track record of 99.595 mph.

For some perspective on exactly how big of a deal this is, see today's earlier blog post about Hamlin being the forgotten man of the 2013 season.

"Any one thing can spark our team," he said moments after qualifying, still beaming and quick to say he was not acting as a Toyota R&D driver for the first time this fall. "Everything is lined up to be successful this weekend."

But the story was, as it always is this time of year, the leading Sprint Cup championship contenders. The good news for Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth is that they qualified third and fourth, respectively, fantastic starting spots for a pair of drivers who have never won at Martinsville. Ranked third and second in the standings, they are looking for any edge to make up ground on Johnson, who took over the points lead one week ago at Talladega.

The bad news for them is they will start the race behind Johnson, who posted a speed identical to Busch, 99.344 mph, but was placed on the front row via a tiebreaker. Johnson's career Martinsville numbers -- eight wins and more than 2,700 laps led -- are already among the greatest in the history of NASCAR's oldest racetrack. Now, he will make his 24th career start from the front row at a place where track position -- and pit-stall selection -- is priceless.

Then again, as Busch was quick to point out, maybe that's not a bad thing.

"Hey," he said, laughing, "I've got the best shot at Jimmie's left rear [tire] going into Turn 1."

-- Ryan McGee

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Focusing on the task at hand

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Yes, NASCAR held a "town hall" meeting on Thursday. Yes, the sanctioning body is looking into changing Sprint Cup Series qualifying procedures in 2014, perhaps to shifting to a "European style" format that will field groups according to practice speeds. Yes, a high-profile crew chief, Todd Parrott, was suspended by NASCAR for failing a drug test and fired by his team, Richard Petty Motorsports. And oh yeah, race fans from coast to coast are still wadded up over the non-finish of last weekend's Chase-altering race at Talladega Superspeedway.

In other words, it was just another sideways week in this most upside-down of NASCAR seasons.

But a stroll through Martinsville Speedway on Friday morning revealed one giant thought bubble hanging over the Cup garage: Dude, we'd really like to talk about all that … but not right now. We're a little buckled down right now.

"I didn't really put a lot thought into it," Matt Kenseth said when asked about the possible qualifying changes. As a result of Talladega's bizarre final laps, he lost the points lead for the first time in the postseason, now trailing Jimmie Johnson by four. "We still have four really important weeks coming up this year and I'm of focused on getting through '13 and trying to get back on the top where we were the first five weeks."

The man he's chasing was equally focused on the here and now, keeping his morning Q&A centered on the topic of the task at hand (save for one quick chat about the 20-mile run he made on Thursday).

"I'm not going to put my guard down here, even though it is one of our better tracks," Johnson said, shortly after Kenseth's media session. "We need to certainly worry about [Kenseth], but also there are four or five cars we need to pay attention to here. If Matt and I slip those guys are right back in it."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the conversations about all that other stuff can wait until later.

-- Ryan McGee

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Junior inks a sponsor, but more TBA

I would tell Junior Nation to breathe easier, but by now I know better.

The good news for fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is that on Friday afternoon his team, Hendrick Motorsports, announced an extension of his longtime sponsorship agreement with the U.S. Army National Guard. The Guard, an Earnhardt sponsor since he moved to Hendrick in 2007, will be the primary sponsor of the No. 88 Chevy for 20 races, including the season-opening Daytona 500. This is in addition to the five-race annual deal with PepsiCo (Diet Mountain Dew), through 2015.

The look of relief at finally getting the announcement made was obvious on the driver's face. However, it was the line at the end of the team's press release that will no doubt have some of his fans wringing their hands: "Additional sponsorship will be announced at a later date."

The fact that NASCAR's perpetual Most Popular Driver isn't fully sponsored yet is perpetually viewed by some among the conspiracy-obsessed fandom as some sort of evidence that the Hendrick organization isn't working hard enough to find sponsorship for their favorite driver.

But to the people who actually make their living trying to drum up backing, it's a different kind of evidence -- that these are still tough times on the sales trail.

"Look around you," a Cup Series team exec said to me on Friday afternoon, motioning to the cars being worked on around us. "How many of these teams have full 38-race sponsorship wrapping the entire car in one logo? Less than 10. And at least one of those is about to go away. It doesn't matter who you are or who your driver is, having a patchwork of sponsors is just the way it is now. Even if you're Dale Junior."

-- Ryan McGee

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Gordon takes a look back

Wait … haven't we heard this before?

Toward the end of his Friday media session, Jeff Gordon, Wonder Boy-turned-elder statesman, took a rare look back into his own racing history during this year when he's fighting to stay in contention for a fifth Cup Series title. Specifically, he talked about what might have happened had one of the greatest pairings in the history of motorsports stayed together, himself and crew chief Ray Evernham.

"I think all the time, back to when Ray and I were together, and if we could have just made it through 1999," the 42-year-old confessed during an answer to a question about the importance of team chemistry, specifically how it pertained to his handpicked protégé, Jimmie Johnson, and crew chief Chad Knaus, who learned his trade under the wing of Evernham. "I was growing and things were changing and we went through a time where I felt like I could do it without him and he felt like well, maybe he can do it without me but I've got another opportunity.

"And we've been able to stay close friends through it all, but we always talk about that time. And I really think that if you make it through those tough times it only makes you stronger. I think if we had done that, we could have really gone on to even win more championships together."

From 1993 through '98, Gordon and Evernham won 47 races and three Cup championships. But Evernham left before the end of the '99 season to helm Dodge's return to NASCAR as a team owner. Gordon kept winning; in fact, he won here at Martinsville just after Evernham's departure. Gordon won his fourth Cup in 2001 with crew chief Robbie Loomis, but hasn't won another championship since. Evernham won 13 races as an owner, eventually losing his team in a weird series of events that eventually brought us what is now known as Richard Petty Motorsports.

Which is a fitting twist, because as Gordon talked what-ifs about Evernham, it reminded me of Richard Petty talking about his cousin and crew chief, fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Inman.

Together, they won 197 races and seven championships. But Inman left the team in 1983. He won a Cup title with Terry Labonte in '84, the same year Petty won his 200th race, but then they both stopped winning. Both have since said they often wonder about the what-ifs.

It also reminded me of Darrell Waltrip and Junior Johnson, who won three championships in five years from 1981-85, only to see Waltrip leave for still-new Hendrick Motorsports at the end of '86. Neither one of the Hall of Famers won another Cup. In fact, they never really came close.

"I don't have many regrets in my life, but I do always wonder what might've happened," Waltrip admitted earlier this year on the "Marty & McGee" podcast. "And even if I didn't, Junior reminds me about it all the time!"

-- Ryan McGee

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Watch out for Hamlin

Remember me?

No, I'm not quoting Cole Trickle. OK, I am. But that was the message being sent by Denny Hamlin on Friday at Martinsville Speedway. Entering the 2013 season, the idea of Hamlin not being one of the hands-down favorites on the flat half-mile oval would have been considered preposterous. Then again, you could say that about everything else that have happened during this lost year.

• He's posted just five top-10 finishes this year, by far a career low.

• He missed four races in the spring after suffering a compression fracture at Auto Club Speedway.

• He hasn't won a race this year, a first in his eight full-time seasons.

• He's all but guaranteed to finish outside the top 20 in the championship standings, easily his lowest ranking and his first finish outside the Chase.

"We started the year and we were competing for race wins before we had the [Fontana] crash," he said Friday afternoon. "But we were fighting something all the time. I came back and we had three or four blown tires in a row. Then we went into R&D mode."

It's that mode -- research & development -- that has led to his admittedly horrible fall statistics, an average finish of 24th since Labor Day weekend. Once it became obvious that Hamlin wasn't going to make the Chase, he was tabbed by Toyota Racing Development and Joe Gibbs Racing to essentially become a test pilot, trying new parts and setups to prep all Toyota teams for 2014.

But here at Martinsville, where the Virginia native owns four wins and only three finishes outside the top six in 15 starts, the 32-year-old is quick to clarify that he isn't here for R&D, he's here to win … even if he is the forgotten man. He isn't looking for just one win. He wants two, running Saturday's Truck Series event in a Tundra sponsored by his good buddy Michael Jordan's apparel brand.

"That's fine for now," he said, when told he hasn't been mentioned as a favorite entering the weekend, by the media or even his fellow competitors. "They'll know we're here by the time the weekend's over."

-- Ryan McGee

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