Commentary

The Thrill in Martinsville?

Updated: October 24, 2010, 12:59 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Sports fans and even sports writers dream about No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups, whether it's in college football or basketball, men's and women's tennis or boxing. It drives interest to a fever pitch, a must-see event that you want to be able to talk about at the water cooler on Monday.

NASCAR rarely has that.

But it does this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson vs. Denny Hamlin.

We'll bill this as "The Thrill in Martinsville" -- close as I could get to "Thrilla in Manila" -- an epic battle between the top two drivers in the Chase, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion versus the driver picked by many to unseat him, the two who have combined to win the past eight races on this half-mile surface hidden in the hills of Virginia.

Sure, 41 other cars will be on the track, but do they really matter? Just look at the numbers for this eight-race stretch. Johnson has five wins, boasts an average finish of 2.5 and has led 1,185 laps. Hamlin has two wins, including the most recent two, sports an average finish of 2.65 and has led 900 laps.

Three times, they have finished 1-2, with Johnson winning two of those.

It doesn't get any better than this in racing.

There's even been a little trash talking, at least from Hamlin's side.

"For me, I would be more nervous if I was the 48 car going into Martinsville than I would if I was myself because we won the last two races there," he said. "[Johnson] didn't have the spring race he was hoping for.

"We are going out there to be on the offense. He's going to try to go out there and win the race, as well. But for me, he's going to have to beat us to do it."

Those words won't reverberate through the sports world like Muhammad Ali -- before a heavyweight title bout against Joe Frazier -- saying, "Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the U.S. Bureau of Wild Life."

It's not like Joe Namath guaranteeing the underdog New York Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

But, as far as racing goes, it's pretty strong.

Hamlin -- making light of Johnson's 41-point lead in the standings -- says he's been conservative on restarts and not put himself in bad positions in the first five Chase races. He said he "easily" could have the points lead were it not for untimely late cautions at California and Charlotte.

"I read some quotes from Denny Hamlin this morning that cleared up how confident he was," Jeff Burton says with a smile. "It is kind of a shootout. I'll say it's motivation for everybody else to be the one guy to knock one of them off."

Kevin Harvick, the only other driver within 156 points of the lead, agrees.

"Who's 1 and who's 2?" asks the regular-season points leader, who is 77 out of first. "I think it has a spoiler feel to it."

Johnson acknowledges the hype, but "at the end of the day, there's still four more races left."

"There's so many points to be won and lost," he says. "I can't stress enough that Talladega [next week] can equal this whole thing up and it's a … 10 car race for the championship."

That's why Johnson is the champion and not the contender. He understands the ebb and flow of the Chase better than anyone. He's not going to let Hamlin get in his head with any prerace mind games.

Johnson reminded us that, in the last Martinsville race, he and crew chief Chad Knaus "were trying some stuff for the first time there, and we're not going back with the same style car" that finished ninth.

Johnson also can take solace that, in 17 career races at Martinsville, he has 16 top-10s, 12 top-5s and six victories for an average finish of 5.4. Hamlin can boast only three wins and a 6.6 average finish in 10 starts.

"Both teams are going to have speed, and I think it's going to boil down to mistakes at this point," Johnson says. "Those guys are doing a great job, solid on pit road, solid on equipment and so on. I think it's going to boil down to mistakes."

Johnson seldom makes mistakes in the Chase. Hamlin hasn't proved he can get through the 10-race playoff without one or more.

But neither seems to make mistakes at Martinsville. That should make this as anticipated as legendary showdowns between David Pearson and Richard Petty, who finished 1-2 63 times in their heyday.

Or maybe it'll resemble one of the classic battles between Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon in the early- to mid-1990s.

"Hey, Denny's car is black," says Ray Evernham, who led Gordon to three of his four championships as a crew chief. "They put a little more color on Jimmie's car and maybe we can get some banging around.

"The fans will appreciate it, but you still have 41 other groups of people out there."

That's what makes 1 vs. 2 showdowns in NASCAR anticlimactic, almost nonexistent. You can have a non-Chaser such as Jamie McMurray slip in and steal the thunder, as he did this past weekend at Charlotte when he prevented a showdown between Kyle Busch and Johnson.

Jeff Gordon seemingly had the March Martinsville race won when caution came out to force overtime with him about 100 yards from taking the white flag -- and, ultimately, the checkered flag.

Jimmmie Johnson I'm not going to get caught up and worried about one guy. It's not worth it at this point.

-- Jimmie Johnson

And if you're into numbers, Gordon's seven Martinsville wins rank first among active drivers and his 123.0 driver rating ranks second to Johnson's 123.8.

But, for the most part in the past five years, this has been a two-man show. There have been a few incredible finishes in that stretch, such as the spring race in 2009, when Johnson sent Hamlin's car skating toward the Turn 3 wall with a bump maneuver that gave him the victory.

The good thing about this rivalry, or bad thing if you're a fan of the good vs. evil thing, is that there's a mutual respect between the drivers that doesn't allow them to cross the lines on the track or off. After the 2009 incident, Hamlin simply said, "Hard for me to fault him. He did it just right. I would have done the same thing."

They'll be the same way Sunday even though there's more riding on this race than in any of the previous eight, particularly on Hamlin's part. He can't let Johnson get too much further ahead and still hope to win his first title.

"We just hope to close the gap once we leave Martinsville, then I'm going to keep him right in front of me for the entire Talladega race," Hamlin says as he looks ahead to next week. "If I'm going to get in a wreck, I'm going to make sure he's in it, as well. We've got to just make sure that we keep him in our sights.

"As far as I'm concerned, when we go to Texas, we won there in the spring. We won Homestead last year, and we ran third in Phoenix last year, so I think we've got a great shot."

Johnson was impressed by Hamlin's numbers, calling it a good strategy. He also wasn't intimidated.

"I'm not going to get caught up and worried about one guy," he says. "It's not worth it at this point."

But at no other track will these two drivers, any two drivers, be more evenly matched than Johnson and Hamlin at Martinsville. Race fans seldom get a 1 vs. 2 showdown of this magnitude, but they have one this weekend.

"Numbers don't lie," Burton says. "It's good for the sport anytime you can match the favorites against each other head to head."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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