How in the world does anyone stop Jimmie Johnson? There are only five races left in the Chase and Johnson has himself a hefty 90-point lead in his quest to win an unprecedented four straight NASCAR Cup Championships.
As if winning three races in five of the Chase races thus far wasn’t bad enough, Johnson goes to a track this week where he’s won six times, including this year in March. The only active driver with more Martinsville wins than Johnson is his teammate and owner Jeff Gordon with seven wins.
One of the pillars of strength for Johnson during his three straight Championships has been Martinsville where he has won the last three years in Chase races. The flat half-mile paper-clip layout has been to Johnson’s liking and despite his standing in points, he’s always let it all hang out with disregard for points.
Johnson has won five of the last six races at Martinsville and every since his debut of 35th in his rookie season, he’s never finished outside of the top-10. In 15 starts, Johnson has 11 top-4 finishes. That is just ridiculous, but a sign of just how great he is on this track.
Johnson realizes that this is his best track record wise, but still has his eye on Talladega as the track that could make or break his fourth straight title.
"Sure, that's the track that you don't have any control at,” Johnson said, “But at the same time, I mean, we're only halfway through this thing. So much can happen. Somebody at Martinsville can lose their brakes and clean you out. With the double file restart there's going to be a lot of bumping and banging. Someone can get into you and knock a valve stem out or cut a tire. I mean, it's a nice points lead, but there's no need for anybody to get too excited yet. We've got good tracks ahead for us, so from a team standpoint we're excited and optimistic, but at the same time there's a lot of danger out there and we've just got to be smart."
Can this week be any different than the last three seasons?
If there is anyone to say that Johnson won’t win this week it may the Virginian himself, Denny Hamlin. He won this race in the spring last season and led the most laps while finishing second to Johnson in the first race this year. In his last six races at Martinsville, Hamlin has finished no worse than sixth.
If the Virginian can’t get there, then it will be up to Jeff Gordon who hasn’t finished outside the top-4 in his last nine Martinsville races. Gordon last won on the track in 2005 when swept the season, but since then Johnson has taken over.
Martinsville has been a place where Hamlin has been phenomenal at statistically speaking, The question is, why exactly?
“It’s probably a combination of all those - knowing the track and feeling comfortable with that type of racing,” Hamlin said. “In terms of places where I have a lot of laps, certainly Martinsville is the place I have the most. Between the Late Model races here and then Cup, trucks and Nationwide this is a place I know well. On top of that, it’s a track that reminds me of the kind of short flat tracks that I grew up on. While I know I have become a much better intermediate and superspeedway driver, those are still my best tracks.”
Of the three, Johnson, Gordon, and Hamlin, they have all hit the top-6 in the last six races at Martinsville. If thinking of betting against anyone of them, it likely is to be worse than betting on UNLV Football on the road.
For Gordon, all his success at Martinsville and looking afar since he hasn’t there in the Jimmie era, he feels working out to manage those continuous shortt turns is essential to getting back in the winners circle there.
"It's extremely important to work out,” Gordon said. “I've not always been the best one at it, and I'm obviously a lot more focused on it now with my back and strengthening that area. I think mentally and physically it's a good thing to put in your regimen, whether you're a race car driver or not a race car driver."
The one wild card is Tony Stewart who finished third this year with his new team. Over his 21 career starts he has two wins and is fourth among active drivers in average finish position. Stewart also has led the third most laps among the active drivers behind Gordon and Johnson.
Of the Chase racers, Mark Martin may have a nice shot at competing with the heavyweights above. While he was on his part-timer farewell tour for two seasons he didn’t race at Martinsville. In his first outing this year he finished seventh under the Hendrick umbrella. He’s got two career wins on the track with the last coming in 2000.
Of the non-Chasers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have the best chance of finishing well. He finished second in this race last year and was eighth earlier this year while driving Tony Eury Jr garbage. Despite his whining last week about how the season has gone, he should be primed and focused to have a good run at a track he’s always ran well at.
"We've had some pretty good runs at Martinsville, and I like racing on the short tracks,” said Earnhardt Jr, “Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff (Gordon) have always run really well there and can give good advice and feedback. Lance (McGrew, crew chief) has built some good race cars for me, and he is bringing a brand new car. I think we've got a good shot."
Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (4/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
5) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (25/1)