Non-winners look for Martinsville turnaround

By HANK KURZ Jr.

AP Sports Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — NASCAR’s top series has had five different winners in five races this season, and as the Monster Energy Cup Series arrives at Martinsville Speedway and its first experience with stage racing rewarding drivers at three points during the race, the focus shifts to drivers who have yet to break through this year.

Neither Jimmie Johnson, who has taken home nine of the iconic grandfather clocks that go to the race winner on NASCAR’s oldest, shortest and many say trickiest track, nor Denny Hamlin, the Virginia native with five victories on the .526-mile paper clip, has registered a top-five finish this season, but this will be their place on Sunday afternoon.

The only other driver in the field of 38 drivers with more than one victory here is Kurt Busch with two.

Johnson won here last October, and said his team’s performance has been better than its results.

“I’ve made mistakes, the team has made mistakes, we’ve had some pit calls not work out in our favor, strategy, pit stops, so we’ve just got to stop making mistakes,” the seven-time series champion said. “That is really where we are at. … I think we are right on the edge there of top five, top three car. We’ve just got to stop making mistakes and ring the bell in that area and then work forward and try to ring the bell for winning the race.”

Hamlin’s last victory here came in this race two years ago, and while he answered “one” when asked Friday how many drivers are on par with him at this track, he said it’s too early to panic about a slow start to 2017.

“We haven’t really hit the heart of the season yet,” he said. “We’ve been to some very intricate type of racetracks that are a little different. Our season always starts off that way. But I think that really eight races in is when you can really look at the bigger picture and kind of figure out where you’re at.”