MARTINSVILLE, Va. — It remains one of the more intriguing ironies in NASCAR racing.
Hendrick Motorsports continues to enjoy unparalleled success on a track which also serves as a stark reminder of the organization’s biggest tragedy.
Once again, Jimmie Johnson dominated at Martinsville Speedway, this time leading 346 of the 500 laps on his way to victory in Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500.
The win is Johnson’s eighth at the track, more than any active driver and third-most in NASCAR history behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11).
HMS, as an organization, now has more Sprint Cup Series wins at Martinsville (20) than any other team.
Yet that accomplishment does not diminish the tragedy which befell HMS in October 2004.
In the hours prior to the start of that race at Martinsville, a HMS plane carrying two pilots and eight passengers, including Rick Hendrick’s son, brother and two nieces, crashed into the side of a nearby mountain killing all on board.
In the years since, HMS has continued on, and so has its drivers’ collection of victories — and trademark Grandfather clocks — at the Virginia short track.
“There’s a feel to this track, and the history we have — 10, 11 years now of coming here and doing this, we just draw on and fall back on,” Johnson said of his success at Martinsville.
“For me to roll in here off of vacation and literally got home the day before and first lap out on the track (Friday) put it up on the top of the board just tells me how good of a car I had.
“It was really up to me to not mess it up as the weekend went on.”
As expected, Johnson didn’t mess up, and there weren’t any drivers close enough to try some wild last-lap moves like the ones that cost him a win here a year ago.
Last spring, Johnson and HMS teammate Jeff Gordon were vying to give HMS its 200th Cup win on the last lap when Clint Bowyer drove hard into corner, sending all three up the track. Ryan Newman, then running fourth, dove to the inside and claimed the win.
A late-race wreck and more than six-minute red flag to clean the track of debris appeared to provide such an opportunity again Sunday, but this time on the restart Johnson quickly put significant distance between himself and Bowyer, who was running second.
“I had a real nice comfortable lead at that point and didn’t want to see a caution at all and give those guys another chance at me, to get alongside of me,” said Johnson, who earned his second win of the season and 62nd of his career.
“Over the years, I feel like I’ve learned that there will be cautions, that there are things you do inside the car to kind of preserve the life of the tire, and then also how to restart and run your best laps — best five, 10 laps, whatever it is — on old tires.
“It’s not an easy thing to do.”
To some of Johnson’s competitors, it appears he has an easy go of it.
Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski said Johnson is “on another level” at Martinsville.
“His car is so much better than everybody else that he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good. That’s pretty obvious,” Keselowski said.
“But I feel like if we can get our car where he’s at, I can beat him.”
Gordon finished third, Kasey Kahne was fourth and Kyle Busch — the series’ most recent winner — finished fifth.
The victory, combined with a sub-par day by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24th), vaulted Johnson back into the series points lead. He holds a six-point lead over Keselowski. Earnhardt dropped to third, 12 behind Johnson.
Bowyer had no illusions of the difficulty in denying Johnson a win, either.
“You get up front, you’re door-to-door with (Johnson), and he’s been enjoying clean sailing all day long, you look at (his car) and it’s ready to go back to the next short track,” Bowyer said.
“Mine is all tore to (heck) and ready to go put a new body on it. I mean, you know what you’re up against. You want to say bad luck and everything else, but you make a lot of your own luck.”
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