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.
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.
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.