Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin could end winless streaks at Martinsville

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The clock is ticking loudly for five drivers.

Four Cup races remain in the 2018 season and that is bad news for at least one of the full-time drivers who won last year but are winless this year.

Entering Sunday’s race at Martinsville (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Newman have yet to accomplish what they did in 2017 – win.

If Larson, Stenhouse or Newman fail to win any of the remaining four races, it will not be entirely out of the ordinary. Larson has a two-year streak of victories while Stenhouse’s only career wins came last year on a pair of plate tracks and Newman has only one victory since 2013.

But for Johnson and Hamlin, it will put them in unchartered waters. Neither driver has failed to win since they earned their first Cup victory as a rookie.

Johnson’s first victory came at Auto Club in 2002 in his 13th start. Technically, he has had one winless season. He started three races in 2001 in preparation for his full-time campaign. But no one expected him to win that year – and more importantly, he never stopped once he started.

The possible ending of a 16-year winning streak looms large.

“It’s high on my list for sure to get that steak alive,” Johnson said earlier this month. “Other than the obvious, I mean it’s just the obvious things, I want to keep that streak alive. I know it’s in us. I guess you do hang on to some stats that float around there although I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them, I take pride in the fact that we have made every Playoff that NASCAR has had so far.”

Johnson qualified for the 2018 playoffs, but in the split second he had to consider on the last lap at the Charlotte Roval whether it was more important to advance to the second round or win, he opted to try and get that elusive victory.

“To have 16 winning seasons, I sure as hell want 17 winning seasons,” Johnson said. “The Roval, I had a look at one and certainly took a shot at it. Then (at Dover) we were just frothing at the mouth ready for that opportunity and didn’t even get to take the green unfortunately. At least on my list to keep that streak alive. Obviously, now that the championship opportunity is closed out, that is the next target to have.”

Johnson won three times in 2002 and in the 15 years that followed, he has won at least twice per year.

In stark contrast, he has only two top fives in 2018. Johnson finished third at Bristol in April and was fifth at the Charlotte oval in May.

For so long, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus made wining look easy. This year was a reminder that it is not.

“It’s important to try to win this season,” Knaus said. “You guys rely on stats way more than what I do. But, yeah, contrary to what people believe we go to the race track to win every week. So, that is kind of the goal and that is what we are going to do.

“It’s very difficult. We at times made it seem very simple to win races. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have made it seem very simple to win races from time to time, but it’s really difficult. So, a lot of the stars have to align and like I mentioned before, I think we are in a position right now where we are getting pretty close to the stars getting right where we need them to win some races. We are going to some great race tracks.”

It has been 55 races since Johnson scored his latest win at Dover last June.

Hamlin’s winning streak is equally impressive. He won twice in his rookie season of 2006, sweeping both Pocono races and has a current streak of 12 years.

Hamlin has come closer to victory lane on many more occasions than Johnson this year. In 32 races, Hamlin has nine top fives. Earlier this month, he had a shot at winning Dover before crossing under the checkers second to Chase Elliott.

Hamlin’s winless streak stands at 43 races. He last visited victory lane at Darlington last September.

This week will be critical. That loud ticking sound heard by Johnson and Hamlin comes from multiple grandfather clocks that are handed out as Martinsville trophies.

Both drivers count Martinsville as one of their best tracks.

Johnson has a career average finish of 7.9 in 33 starts there, which places this track just behind Auto Cub (7.2 in 24 starts). He has visited Martinsville’s victory lane nine times – most recently in 2016.

Hamlin’s career average of 10.1 in 25 starts places this track third on his list behind Darlington (6.2 in 13 starts) and Richmond (9.6 in 25 starts). He has five Martinsville wins. His most recent victory there came in 2015.

Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne also won races in 2018, but neither driver has a full-time ride this year.

Kenseth is running a part-time schedule with Roush Fenway Racing. He is entered this week at Martinsville and will close out the season at Phoenix and Homestead. Trevor Bayne will be in the car for Texas.

Kahne was forced to retire before the end of the season for medical reasons.

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Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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