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Johnson Takes Chase Lead Heading Into Sweet Spot At Martinsville

Here comes Jimmie!

With four races to go in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, look who is in the lead -- five-time Cup champion and four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson.

And this weekend Johnson heads to a track where he enjoyed even more success than at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the .526-mile, paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway.

Johnson has an incredible eight wins, 16 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in just 23 starts at Martinsville, including victories in the past two Cup contests at the picturesque, flat short track nestled away in the southern foothills of Virginia. He entered the race last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway just four points out of the Sprint Cup lead and took the top spot from Matt Kenseth with a 13th-place finish after leading the most laps in the 188-lap restrictor-plate race.

“We had a great race car and led a lot of the race,” Johnson said. “At the end there, the No. 1 (eventual race winner Jamie McMurray, the 2010 Brickyard 400 winner) decided to run the top and took the bulk of cars with him. As that happened, the middle lane that I was in quickly became the bottom lane and then quickly didn’t exist.

“I dropped like a rock for a while and was able to get in the outside lane and start making some spots back and fortunately missed the big pileup on the backstretch. Thirteenth isn’t the best finish, but with what we are trying to do and win a championship, we beat the competition, and that is good.”

Racing at Talladega is not one of Johnson’s favorite things because of the intense, high-speed, pack racing on a restrictor-plate speedway. Too many things out of the driver’s control often dictate success.

But racing at Martinsville Speedway suits Johnson perfectly. It’s a return to the roots of the sport – a short track where a driver can nudge another car out of his way to get to the front.

“Martinsville has been good to us in the past,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go there and race. There is going to be a lot of strong competition. We will make sure we get buttoned up and ready to go for this weekend’s race and go up there to that paperclip and see what we can do.”

Johnson hoped to simply finish without problems at Talladega. For much of the race with the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in the front of the field, it appeared he might even drive to victory before the late-race shuffle dropped him out of the top 10.

Now, it’s off to the “Final Four” tracks that include Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
 
“I feel that the races looking forward now are up to where the competitors go earn it,” Johnson said. “You don’t have this luck issue that can take place at (restrictor) plate tracks. So I am happy to have the points lead. We went through a lot of work to get there. We were just getting one point at a time (at Talladega), and we got a few more than normal and were able to get the lead. We just go racing from here, and that is the thing I am most excited for. Great racetracks, great race cars, and it’s just going to be a dogfight to the end.”

And that could favor Johnson, who has two wins, nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 20 starts at Texas Motor Speedway and four wins, 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes in 20 starts at Phoenix International Raceway. The only track remaining in The Chase where Johnson has not achieved impressive success is Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he has never won a race but has four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 12 starts.

Part of the reason Johnson hasn’t won at Homestead is because he didn’t have to. During his impressive streak of five straight Cup titles, Johnson often arrived at the final race of the season with a lead to protect and drove conservatively to clinch the title.

There are only five drivers that have a legitimate chance at the championship over the final four races. The rest of the 13-driver field are 50 or more points back with time running out because there are only a maximum of 48 points available to a driver in each Cup race.

Johnson leads Kenseth by four points, Indiana 250 winner Kyle Busch by 26, Kevin Harvick by 26 and Jeff Gordon by 34. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sixth, 52 points out.

Kenseth opened The Chase by winning the first two races and led the standings until last Sunday at Talladega.

“I don't think it will affect my team,” Kenseth said of losing the lead. “I think I have one of the greatest teams out here, obviously, and I feel like we can go everywhere else and honestly we can race with anybody when we're at our best. Hopefully, we'll be at our best the next four weeks, and we'll give them a run for their money. It was just an incredibly disappointing day. The end there, I just still for the life of me can’t figure out -- I need to watch it.

“At Talladega, from third on back to 14th, I think everybody was running half-throttle and me, Joey (Logano) and Carl (Edwards) and I thought Greg (Biffle) was going to go with us, too, and he must have decided not to. A couple of other guys tried to make it happen, and I figured two or three more would bail on the bottom, and we'd mix it up and somebody would go up and try to be the leader, but nobody wanted to go. Everybody wanted to stay in their spots. I should have been smarter there and I guess paid attention to points, but I'm not really wired like that.

“I want to go up and mix it up and try to win the thing.”

And if history is an indicator, Johnson is the driver with the best shot at winning at Martinsville.

After 500 laps around the grueling short track in Southern Virginia, a victory by Johnson could change the mantra for the final four three races in The Chase to an all-too familiar refrain:

“There goes Jimmie!!!”
 

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