MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- In the days since his injury at Auto Club Speedway, Denny Hamlin learned just how much his competitors in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are pulling for his speedy recovery. More significantly, he learned that his biggest ally is also his newest teammate.
Of all the drivers that sent Hamlin texts and tweets with get-well sentiments, Matt Kenseth may be the most vigilant well-wisher.
"You hate to see anybody ever get hurt, especially not be in the car. That's tough," said Kenseth, who joined the Joe Gibbs Racing fold in the offseason. "He was probably getting sick of me texting him -- you know, nobody calls anybody any more. They just text, right? I checked on him quite regularly, so it's nice to see him at the track today. Seems like he's in a good mood. Hope he heals up quicker than we think."
Hamlin, who was a near-constant presence in the garage area Friday at Martinsville Speedway, estimated earlier in the week that Kenseth had "probably texted me 50 times, literally every day or every few hours checking in on me." The outpouring of support grew larger Friday with a personal visit from Jimmie Johnson in his hauler and a "Get well soon, Denny" decal atop the B-pillar on Tony Stewart's car.
"It means a lot. We're all fierce competitors on the race track, but we all have hearts for each other," Hamlin said. "This is a tight family, the NASCAR group is. Obviously, it makes you very humble to look at the support you get, whether it be through Twitter, on race telecasts or your peers coming up and talking to you personally."
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have tried their best to corner the market on Martinsville victories over their careers, topping all active drivers with seven wins each. In doing so, they've enjoyed the lion's share of a unique Martinsville tradition.
The speedway has given grandfather clocks as the trophy for NASCAR's premier series without fail since Sept. 27, 1964, when Fred Lorenzen claimed the first one by winning the Old Dominion 500. The tradition of awarding antique furniture has continued into modern times, with Gordon and Johnson reaping the primary benefit.
So what does one do with seven nearly 8-foot-tall timepieces?
"I have them all. My friends and even family keep threatening to take one or the next one I win is theirs," Johnson said before winning the Coors Light Pole Award for Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500. "Six of them are in my warehouse, my man space that I have, and one is at the office. They don't work. They don't all cling and clang at the same time. Yes, we turned them off. It'd be a little annoying."
Gordon, who qualified sixth for Sunday's race, was not quite as fastidious with his inventory of clocks.
"I couldn't go through and tell you which rooms they're in," Gordon said. "I know that they're accounted for, but I have a pretty bad memory. I think there's one still in a box, and I think that there are several spread out between Rick Hendrick and Ray Evernham and maybe even Brian Whitesell and myself. But they're out there. Our decorating at home doesn't really lend itself to grandfather clocks, so it's just not one of those trophies you'd typically display at home, but usually at the race shop or waiting for that place to put it one day."
Danica's debut at Martinsville
Danica Patrick made her first official laps at Martinsville Speedway on Friday, not knowing what to expect. After 90 minutes of practice and a qualifying session, at least she's consistent and more experienced than when she started.
Patrick was 33rd on the practice charts and qualified 32nd for Sunday's 500-lap main event, but hopes that a dry run at the Little Rock test facility in Rockingham, N.C., and pointers from her boss, Tony Stewart, will help her cause.
"I always feel like the more new a situation is, kind of the less expectations there are and in general the less pressure and less nerves go on," Patrick said. "I've always felt like the more expectation level that exists and the longer you've been around, that's when I get more nervous because it's time. Definitely being here for the first time and understanding how challenging it is, I feel like it's only up from here.
"I have no doubt that it will be a hard day, but I'm also of the belief that it can also be a really fun day. I mean, a good car is a good car. If it's good and it's hooked up and it's turning, and the practice day we did a few weeks ago translates to this track and the car performs as well as it did at practice that day, there's no reason we can't have a decent day."
A decent day would go a long way to improving Patrick's 29th-place position in the Sprint Cup points standings. Since her historic eighth-place effort from the pole in the season-opening Daytona 500, Patrick has four straight finishes of 26th or worse, all off the lead lap.
"It's been not as good as what I had hoped for," Patrick said. "Then again, I also said I'm not going to set expectation levels at this point and time. I'm going to see how it goes. I think based on that, for me I would say that we just need to get a grasp as to what I need out of this new car."
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