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NASCAR: Johnson holding off challengers

Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó This season was supposed to have the most competitive title race since the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format began six years ago.
Instead, it’s once again been the Jimmie Johnson show.
With only two races remaining to crown NASCAR’s 2009 champion, Mark Martin is the only driver with a realistic shot of dethroning Johnson. But with a 73-point cushion, Johnson only needs to hold steady the next two weeks to win a record fourth consecutive championship.
So what went wrong?
Here’s a look at the trials and tribulations of the drivers who were expected to challenge Johnson when the Chase started eight weeks ago, only to be left behind the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team:
– Martin, second in points, 73 out: He opened the Chase with a win at New Hampshire, the fifth win of the season for the resurgent 50-year-old. The sentimental favorite, Martin finished second in four previous title races, stayed neck-and-neck with Johnson through the first four rounds.
Martin finished 17th at Charlotte, while Johnson went on to win the race and finally put a cushion between himself and his teammate.
Martin’s only other setback came at Talladega, when he was collected in a last-lap accident that sent his car flipping across the track for the first time in his storied career. That 28th-place finish likely sealed his fate, even though he heads this weekend back to Phoenix International Raceway, site of his first win this season.
– Jeff Gordon, third in points, 112 out: His Chase got off to a bad start with a mediocre 15th-place finish in the New Hampshire opener that stuck him in a significant hole. But he ran great the next five weeks, grabbing five finishes of sixth or better, including two second-places. Then came Talladega, where he ran out of fuel late and finished 20th to lose more ground to Johnson.
But if Johnson struggles the next two weeks, Gordon will certainly look back at Texas as where he failed to capitalize on an opportunity to really make it a tight title race. After Johnson’s early accident opened up the field, Gordon had a chance to pounce but couldn’t because of his career struggles at Texas. He nearly went a lap down and wound up a frustrated 13th.
– Kurt Busch, fourth in points, 171 out: Busch ran really well most of the Chase, just not good enough to keep pace with Johnson. An 11th at Kansas caused him to fall back from the leaders, and a 17th at Martinsville in his only real off race sort of sealed his fate.
He could be closer because he ran very well at Talladega, only to be wrecked, like Martin, on the final lap as a likely top-10 finish plummeted to a 30th-place result. Busch bounced back with a victory last week in Texas, but it was too little too late for the 2004 Chase winner.
– Tony Stewart, fifth in points, 178 out: The two-time series champion is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the Chase. Although he did win at Kansas to gain some of his swagger back, he’s fallen tremendously off the pace he set all season long as he cruised to a sizable “regular season” points lead.
Trying to become the first owner/driver to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, Stewart only briefly flirted with the possibility once the Chase began. He was just OK in the opener, but came back from a accident at Dover to finish ninth. Then came the win at Kansas that pushed him back into contention.
The rest of the races, though, have been memorable for Stewart only in that he didn’t really stand out at all. His finishes were decent ó four top-13 finishes in the past five races ó but he never dominated and led just seven laps over that stretch.

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