MARTINSVILLE, Va._ Coming into this weekend’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway, the question was could anyone stop the dominance of Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson on the half-mile paperclip. The pair had combined to win the previous nine Martinsville events, leaving many to guess Sunday’s race would be no different, and for much of the event they were right.
However, despite strong runs by both, it was Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch that battled for the win – not Hamlin and Johnson. Suffering separate problems, Hamlin and Johnson both saw their days ruined by mistakes on pit road.
With strong cars underneath of them, Hamlin and Johnson contended for the lead throughout most of Sunday’s race. Coming off of three-straight Martinsville victories, Hamlin was out front seven times for a total of 89 laps, while Johnson – a six-time winner – held the top spot three times for 65 laps.
Hamlin’s issues struck first as he pitted from the lead under green flag conditions on Lap 315. Stopping six laps earlier than any of the other front-runners, the No. 11 crew struggled on the stop when the front tire changer dropped a lugnut on the right side. The slow stop cost Hamlin the lead and led the driver to call on his crew to step it up.
Still in the hunt, however, Hamlin remained in the top 5 until making his final scheduled stop under green on Lap 456 with 44 laps to go. Now with a front tire changer from teammate Joey Logano’s team, crew chief Mike Ford told his crew, “This is it. Ok? We’ve got to get it done right here. I’m not going to say anymore about it.”
While the crew was able to put together a solid stop, an ensuing caution 11 laps later caught Hamlin a lap down and forced to take the wave-around to get back on the lead lap. Restarting behind the leaders – who pitted under the caution – Hamlin was never able to get back to the front in the final 29 laps and finished the day a disappointing 12th.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us I guess, I don’t know,” Hamlin said. “Things like that, it’s pretty tough. Especially mid-season. You’ve got chemistry and stuff that you’ve got to deal with, but at this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don’t know right now and we don’t know what to do.
“As far as fuel mileage and that results and is the key to our bad finish so again, just go to TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and figure out why we’re getting such bad mileage,” he said. “We had to stop a little bit before those guys and ultimately put us in a bad spot when the caution came out.”
Unlike Hamlin, Johnson had yet to pit when Regan Smith brought out that final caution amid the green flag stops. Entering the pits second to Kyle Busch, the No. 48 team knocked out a fast pit stop and sent their driver off pit road just behind the No. 18 to maintain the second spot. Yet as the leaders headed back to the track, NASCAR issued a pit road speeding penalty to the No. 48 for being too fast entering.
As a result, Johnson was forced to give up the second position and drop to the tail end of the longest line for the restart. Fighting through heavy traffic, Johnson was only able to work his way back to 11th when the checkered flag flew.
Clearly upset with the call, Johnson questioned NASCAR’s decision and called on the sanctioning body to show the timing segment in which he was speeding.
“I wasn’t speeding,” he said. “[NASCAR] didn’t like how it looked. The way I managed my timing lines. Had this happened one other time where I do a good job with my timing lines to know exactly where I needed to accelerate and where I needed to stop. There is just no way. People will say whatever. But with the math and the way we know our timing lines, there is just no way.
“We would had a shot at [the win],” he said. “You would hope you can race for it. I am disappointed about that. It just sucks to have that taken away from me at the end. But that is racing. Not the first guy to get dinged on pit road and thinking it wasn’t his fault. I know it won’t be the last so we will just go on.”
Two of the most dominant drivers in the last four years at Martinsville, both Hamlin and Johnson saw their chances at further dominance slip away after mistakes on pit road cost them the race. One of the most crucial aspects of any race, the fate of these two drivers proved that no matter how strong the car or the performance, it can all be lost if everything does not go right on pit road.