The first of them, however, was hardly a day for celebration.
It was Oct. 24, 2004, the day a plane carrying 10 members of the Hendrick Motorsports family on their way to the race crashed in fog-shrouded mountains a few miles from the speedway. No one survived and so when Johnson prepares to return to NASCAR’s smallest track, his thoughts drift in many directions.
“Like today,” he said. “I flew up. It’s overcast. It’s cloudy. The whole week leading into Martinsville, I’ve been excited about coming here to race and feel like we have a great chance to win. I wake up this morning and it’s overcast, and I just can’t help but think of the airplane incident.”
Among those lost in the crash were Ricky Hendrick, son of team owner Rick Hendrick, and John Hendrick, the owner’s brother.
Johnson and other team members didn’t know of the crash until the race was over.
“I look back on that day a lot and think about how things went down,” Johnson said. “NASCAR called all four cars to pit lane. We get to pit lane, and there are police officers standing around our cars, and I’m like ‘What in the world has happened?’ Normally there are NASCAR officials, not police officers.
“I walk through that from time to time. I hope to never ever go through anything like that again.”
Thankfully for Johnson and the Hendrick organization, there are also many great memories of the 0.526-mile oval. Johnson has added seven more victories on the track, teammate Jeff Gordon also has won eight times and Geoff Bodine gave the fledgling team its first victory on the paper clip 30 years ago.
It all makes the oldest track in NASCAR’s top series an emotional stop no matter what.
Five more things to watch in NASCAR’s sixth race of the season:
• Through five races, there have been five different winners.
Through six qualifying sessions, there have been six different pole-sitters.
Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are the only drivers with one of each.
• There’s a sense among drivers already with a victory that the pressure is off because a victory almost assures them of a spot in the 10-race playoffs.
• Carl Edwards earned his lone Martinsville victory in October 2011, and otherwise has found the track to be most unforgettable. He’s finished outside the top 10 in his last four starts here, but said he arrived this weekend with no pressure at all. He, like Earnhardt, already has won this year.
• Matt Kenseth’s longtime frustration with Martinsville seemingly ended last October when he finished second to Jeff Gordon on the 0.526-mile oval. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, will start on the front row today, with Kenseth starting sixth.
“They used to always pick me to watch because they figured I would be the wreck or the action,” he said.
• Danica Patrick’s No. 10 starting spot is her best anywhere but Daytona in her Sprint Cup career.
“I’ve got to get better at getting all of it out of the car every time and I have such kind of a negative attitude about qualifying that I said I need to be positive and at least be neutral on it and let these be positive reinforcements,” she said. “It’s so important, especially at a place like this.”