Jimmie Johnson has Bristol and the road courses; Jeff Gordon has Texas. Nearly every driver has a track or a type of track on their list of weaknesses – one where they can never seem to turn the perfect lap around. It’s a place that becomes a Bermuda Triangle for them, no matter the racing series, where they spend the weekend somewhere between dazed and confused.
It’s a feeling this year’s Daytona 500 polesitter – along with Johnson’s emerging rival – already know all too well just one week into the season, along with a trepidation they feel every time they step foot on Daytona Beach. For while top 2010 Sprint Cup contenders Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin have made fast laps and run up front at restrictor-plate tracks, their knack for being within an inch of missing trouble in dicey moments in these races is their biggest obstacle if they want to wrest the Sprint Cup crown away from four-time defending champion Johnson.
Let’s start with Martin. In all or parts of 27 seasons, he has never won a Cup title (though he has finished second in points five times), has never won a Daytona 500, and has only two restrictor-plate wins (both at Talladega in 1995 and 1997). Many consider Martin a hard luck driver, as he has missed the title because of a points penalty for an illegal part in 1990 and a victory in the sport’s biggest race in the worst way – losing by a nose to Kevin Harvick in 2007.
But Martin is more than unlucky at Daytona and Talladega. Last year, he wrecked in three of the four plate races and finished 16th in the Daytona 500. The two Talladega wrecks were not of his doing, but in the Coke Zero 400 Daytona race, he misjudged Matt Kenseth’s placement on the track, tried to move into his lane, and then got spun to the infield, where the nose of the No. 5 car hit the inside wall enough to take him out of contention. In the Bud Shootout Saturday night, Martin made a similar mistake with Kurt Busch, the result of which sent Busch into the infield grass and then back up onto the track and into the outside wall. Martin, unlike some others in his trade, took no time admitting on his radio that the contact was his mistake. In practice for that race the day before, he and Hamlin made contact with each other, triggering a multi-car melee and totaling theirs’ and others’ Bud Shootout machines. Add in getting involved in a green-white-checkered disaster Saturday night, and that’s two cars in two days Martin has torn all to pieces. No wonder why he says that plate racing is not exactly his bag, something he’s loathed since its inception in the late 1980s. Even the most respected driver in the garage has an Achilles’ heel – but at 51, time is running out for Martin to finally put these nightmares behind him.
Martin’s plate race stats (points races only)
Daytona: 49 starts, 0 wins, 9 top fives, 17 top 10s, Avg. Finish: 18.1
Talladega: 44 starts, 2 wins, 10 top fives, 22 top 10s, Avg. Finish: 16.4
Hamlin’s hard luck in his short career, at times, has mirrored Martin’s. Not only has the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota lost multiple races due to freak mechanical failures in the final laps, but even his first career win at Pocono in 2006 did not come without a flat tire and a spin while leading mid-race. His shortcomings as a driver have been echoed on restrictor plate tracks more than anywhere else, though, where a mixture of his young aggression, impatience, and seemingly genetic bad luck have both kept him from victory lane and also torn up a lot of racecars. Following his surprising, breakthrough Bud Shootout win in 2006, a black cloud has settled above him at both Daytona and Talladega. In the spring Talladega race in 2008, Hamlin got criticized by his teammate and eventual winner Kyle Busch for not hanging with him in the draft (he finished third). At Daytona in summer of 2007, Tony Stewart and Hamlin wrecked each other, prompting both to criticize the other publicly to the point team owner Joe Gibbs had to hold a closed-door meeting just so they could air their differences and make up.
When Hamlin has not been busy conducting a wrecking session at plate races, he has either been caught up in other peoples’ trouble or been eliminated from contention by mechanical problems. It’s a feast or famine the likes of which Hamlin doesn’t see at any other track – in 16 total restrictor-plate starts, he has just three top fives and no other finishes better than 17th.
Hamlin’s plate race stats (points races only)
Daytona: 8 starts, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, Avg. Finish: 23.8
Talladega: 8 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 2 top 10s Avg. Finish: 22.2
Here again is where the two talented wheelmen intersect. Like Martin, Hamlin has openly showed that he believes in gaining the respect of fellow drivers (Brad Keselowski not withstanding). In fact, the 28-year-old said at a tire test last season at Atlanta Motor Speedway that he constantly texts other drivers for advice, asking them if certain moves he made were appropriate. But neither one was likely being asked for help at Speedweeks after a difficult weekend for each. Despite winning the pole for this year’s 500, Martin has torn up more cars over the weekend then he usually does over the course of the season, and his contact with Hamlin that spurred a half-a-dozen car wreck in practice was an embarrassing moment for both.
It’s ironic that the tracks where these two make the most mistakes are where their fellow drivers are most at risk, for restrictor-plate no-nos almost always come with larger consequences compared to other tracks. While Johnson may have trouble tackling Bristol or winding around Watkins Glen, a slip up at those places may only cost him a position or two. An inch misjudgment at Talladega, however, can wad up a dozen racecars with the snap of a finger. Also, there are four plate races on the circuit, not including the Bud Shootout and Gatorade Duel races. Regarding Johnson’s weaknesses again, Bristol and the road courses are not in the Chase, whereas Talladega is. A mistake on Halloween weekend at Talladega can prove to be a horror story for one’s title hopes. Neither Hamlin nor Martin have lost a Chase championship solely because of Talladega, but considering some of their mistakes both this weekend and in the past, it is not at all out of the question.
Brett Favre, while the winner of several MVPs, multiple records and a Super Bowl ring, has this same weakness in tense situations. His last pass as a Packer was an overtime interception in the 2007 NFC Championship game. His last toss this season was the heartbreaking, overtime pick thrown while driving on the Saints in another championship game… yet again in overtime.
At least Favre was able to conquer his demons one time throughout the course of his career, coming up with a lone Super Bowl victory. But until Hamlin and Martin get over the hump of their restrictor-plate nightmares, they’ll likely never have a chance to do the same.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.