Hendrick's dynamic duo the boys to beat

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville Speedway. Jeff Gordon used to, and shows signs of taking it back. And both badly need a win.

So Sunday's Goody's 500 is the kind of race where teammates become rivals, and can collide.

There could even be some payback from their late-race slugfest for the win here two years ago, with second-place Gordon beating on leader Johnson so hard that Johnson's helmet was banging against his seat. They rubbed coming off Turn 4 and a nearly sideways Johnson beat Gordon at the checkered flag.

"He certainly showed it was OK to beat and bang with a teammate like that," Johnson said Friday, "so if he's in front of me, I'm not going to feel bad about roughing him up."

Between them, mentor Gordon and protégé Johnson have won a cool dozen races here, and nine of the past 12. Gordon has won seven to Johnson's five, but Johnson has been hotter lately, winning four of his past five Cup starts here.

"He certainly has been the guy to beat here," Gordon said, "and the times that we were maybe a little bit better than them, like that time we bumped and banged, he had the track position.

"And at that point you don't look at them as a teammate," Gordon continued. "You look at them as a competitor out there, and you do whatever you can to try to win the race."

Both are blatantly hungrier than usual. Johnson is winless this season, and off to a comparatively slow start in his bid for a fourth season title.

Gordon, though currently leading the points, is suffering through the worst winless streak of his career, 46 races, dating back to October of 2007.

And so if an '07, 1-2 scenario arises again at the end, "whether I'm leading or he's leading," Gordon said, "I would imagine you're going to see a lot of the same actions."

Gordon caught a huge break Friday when qualifying was rained out, so that Sunday's starting order will be determined by season points. Though the pole is nice, the real advantage here is pit stall selection.

"There's only one good one here," Gordon said, "that first one."

And he gets it, while Johnson will start ninth and has a woeful ninth choice of pit stall.

Johnson would be going for six in a row here if not for Denny Hamlin, who won this race last spring, albeit on pit strategy on a rainy day. Otherwise, Johnson would be unbeaten here since the spring of 2006.

Hamlin usually runs well here, but has only the one win to show for it.

"It's always been us three: the 24 [Gordon], the 48 [Johnson] and us, every time we come here," Hamlin said.

Is Hamlin concerned about any of the other 40 drivers come Sunday?

"Not really," he said. "Just those two guys. That's all we're looking at."

The 24 and 48 are about as far as anybody else is looking, too, because "Jeff is so good here and Jimmie's so good here," said Kyle Busch, winner of two of the past three Cup races this season.

"Those are the two hardest guys, probably, to pass here, because they know this place," Busch said. "They know how to get off the corner. They know how to keep rolling in the middle of the corner.

"Everything's timing," Busch continued. "And it's like their stuff just works, whatever it is."

Gordon has been the professor, and Johnson the star student, of how to drive Martinsville.

Learning the secrets of this flat, tiny, .526-mile, paper clip-shaped track, the smallest on the Cup tour, "started with a test with Ray [Evernham as his crew chief], somewhere in the mid '90s," Gordon said.

They'd made so many changes to his car that Gordon "finally got frustrated and said, 'Well, I'm going to try some things.' "

He changed his driving style here.

"And all of a sudden, the rhythm, the pace, the times, everything just started to come to me," Gordon said. He rolled up five of his wins here before Johnson got one in 2004.

And then … "Jimmie -- you've got to give him credit -- is an incredible student," Gordon said, "whether it's me showing him things here at Martinsville, or him following a driver of another team. He reads the data, he watches closely, and he's able to adapt his style."

"For me, there's such a specific rhythm," Johnson said. "And once I got it, it's been -- it doesn't win the race, but it's been like if I look for that rhythm and feeling, good things happen.

"I don't know why some guys haven't been able to get it," Johnson continued. "It's a very technical lap around here. It's not the easiest thing to do. I've had the great fortune of good cars and a good starting point to work from, with all of Jeff's success here and really all of Hendrick Motorsports' success here [17 wins] over the years."

What Gordon learned, and taught to Johnson, was patience.

In that landmark test, at first, "I was just rushing through everything. I just needed to be a little more patient," Gordon said.

This track "is just one of those unique, strange places that guys either love or they don't," Gordon said. "You can't be aggressive here, yet at times you have to be. Aggression just means you might have to put the bumper to a guy or you might have to drive in deep for one or two laps to try to pass some cars. But as far as just driving the track, less aggression is actually much better.

"And as race car drivers, that's really the opposite of what we try to do."

Jeff Burton doesn't see that there's much other teams can do about the 24-48 domination anytime soon, because "the rate of learning is low at this track," he said. That is, tricks learned at other places simply don't apply here.

"When you go to Richmond, you don't learn anything for Martinsville," Burton said. "When you go to Phoenix, you don't learn anything for Martinsville … That goes for the teams and the drivers."

And so, "when you get behind here, it's hard to catch back up," Burton continued, "because how you learn is so different here."

Burton would like to offer more hope, but "the facts are the facts," he said of 24-48. "It sits there right in front of you that some people have more success here. And that's not out of luck."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.