NASCAR: Johnson wins in Martinsville
By Hank Kurz Jr.
MARTINSVILLE, Va. ó Jimmie Johnson is on a roll again, and whether he’s willing to admit it or not, while everyone else in NASCAR is chasing him, he’s chasing history.
Johnson led 339 laps Sunday as he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates again dominated at Martinsville Speedway, and the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion padded his lead in his bid for a record-tying third championship in a row with four races remaining.
Only Cale Yarborough, from 1976-78, has won three straight championships in stock car racing’s premier series, and Johnson is looking more and more as if he’ll be the second.
“I’m going to have to answer those questions one of these days, aren’t I?” Johnson said of the ones about Yarborough and taking a position beside him in history.
Johnson’s sixth victory of the year extended his points lead from 69 to 149, and while his closest challengers vowed that the Chase race isn’t over, the plaudits keep coming, too.
“There’s a lot of great teams that were huge in the sport,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, lumping Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus in with his father and Richard Petty, both seven-time champions, and Hall of Famers David Pearson, Yarborough and Junior Johnson.
“To pack it in three years and just dominate like that, there’s only a half a dozen teams that have ever done anything like that, been that strong consistently,” Earnhardt said.
And it could only be the beginning of another big finish for Johnson.
It was a year ago that this race started a four-race winning streak for Johnson, a run that he said left him leaving Phoenix thinking, “I cannot believe I’m experiencing this.”
Now, to experience it again, he’s not planning on letting up at all.
“As long as I can stay scared and on my heels and worried about losing this thing, the better this team’s going to be. If we start getting comfortable and complacent, we’re going to stub our toes, make mistakes,” he said. “We’re trying to keep our eye on the prize.”
So are the rest of the contenders, even if it’s getting further and further away.
“We’re going to come and get them,” said Greg Biffle, who climbed to second in points. “We’ve got four more chances and we’re going to some of our best places, so they better be on their `A’ game. … I’m still confident we can catch him, for sure.”
So are Jeff Burton, 152 points back, and Carl Edwards, fourth and 198 behind.
“He could have any sort of trouble the next two races and be right back there with us,” Edwards said, lumping himself with Biffle and Burton. “It can happen to anyone.”
But at Martinsville, as always, none of them had a way to stop Johnson. It was his third consecutive fall victory here, and fourth in the last five races on NASCAR’s shortest oval.
Earnhardt was second, followed by Edwards and Jeff Gordon, giving Hendrick three of the top four spots. Denny Hamlin was fifth and Casey Mears, the fourth Hendrick driver, was sixth.
The 1-2 finish was the 23rd for the multicar team, and third at Martinsville. It was sealed in a two-lap sprint to the finish after the 12th caution flew on lap No. 499.
“I didn’t have anything for Jimmie. That car was so awesome,” Earnhardt said.
Johnson led seven times in all, passing Gordon for the top spot with 209 laps to go, then making quick work of Matt Kenseth, who stayed out on the track under caution with 38 to go.
Johnson heads to Atlanta with the largest lead in the history of the Chase at this point.
The day was shaping up as a great one for Jamie McMurray, who started 20th and climbed into contention quickly. He was running fourth with about 100 laps to go when his car suddenly slowed on the backstretch. He drove it directly to his garage stall and wound up 38th.