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Turner’s Take: Hamlin Ready to Join Johnson in the Record Books?

Move over, Mr. Martinsville. You’ve got company now.

After Denny Hamlin’s win in Monday’s rescheduled Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson no longer owns exclusive rights to the title, “Mr. Martinsville,” conferred upon him a few years ago by teammate Jeff Gordon.

Instead, Johnson must share it with Hamlin.

Why should you care?

It’s not very often that Johnson has to share anything with anyone.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver’s 50 career wins are second to only Gordon’s 82 among active drivers, and his four straight championships represent the most consecutive titles in series history. No active driver, besides Gordon (also with four championships), can match Johnson in that category either. Certainly not Hamlin, who joined the Cup series full-time in 2006 and has nine career wins and no titles thus far.

When comparing Hamlin’s Martinsville numbers to those of Johnson, you’ll also find that Hamlin’s three wins at the track don’t match Johnson’s six. But bear in mind that Hamlin also has seven fewer starts at the .526-mile oval.

With Hamlin’s dramatic win on Monday, he and Johnson have now combined to win a staggering eight consecutive Martinsville races. Five of those victories, plus an initial one at Martinsville in fall 2004, belong to Johnson – but Hamlin has been even harder to beat at the paperclip-shaped oval as of late.

Let’s let the facts speak for themselves. In the last five Martinsville races, Hamlin has three wins to Johnson’s two. Hamlin has also left town with the familiar grandfather clock awarded to race winners after the last two events, while Johnson has collected an average finish of just 5.5.

Hamlin’s performance on Monday, when he led six times for a race-high 172 laps and moved from ninth to the lead over the final five green-flag laps, was arguably his most impressive ever. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver appeared to have the race in hand before a questionable call for four tires by crew chief Mike Ford set him back. But thanks to a Kyle Busch spin that extended the race two laps and the ill-timed moves of other frontrunners, Hamlin had just enough time to rally for another win in his home state of Virginia.

In comparison Johnson, who had opened the season with three wins in five outings, finished a surprisingly quiet ninth on a day when his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet never showed enough speed to contend for the win. Failing to lead a lap, it was the defending four-time champ’s worst run at Martinsville since also placing ninth in his third start there in spring 2003.

“We were trying some stuff through the company, especially on the [No.] 48 car today,” Johnson said. “We thought we would get it sorted out in practice and just came up a little short. Didn’t get enough time with our new ideas.”

Time appeared not to be on Hamlin’s side, either, after surrendering the lead on his final stop when most of the leaders remained on the track. But Hamlin, driving with an aggression that has come to characterize his style only since mid-2009, rooted his way into the lead by the time the field roared off turn 4 to take the white flag.

For the native of Chesterfield, Va., winning in his home state never gets old. In addition to his three triumphs at Martinsville, the JGR driver also won for the first time at Richmond International Raceway last fall.

“Somehow it just gives you more motivation, for whatever reason, or determination,” he said. “It’s definitely more gratifying when you’re able to do that because you know, my fans in particular, they could pick anybody, and probably guys that are more successful, win more races, but they have my [paraphernalia] on because they believe in me. When we’re able to win, it makes me happy that they’re happy.”

Hamlin should be even happier that he’s in the same league with Johnson – even if it’s just in one category for right now.

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