Commentary

Historically, Johnson's lead still enough

Updated: November 10, 2009, 4:49 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

The Chase is back, or so we thought.

Never have so many celebrated a good man's misfortune. But Jimmie Johnson's bad day at Texas Motor Speedway meant a championship battle might suddenly appear after all.

It was hope renewed for Mark Martin, who chopped 111 points off Johnson's lead.

While I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, I have some disappointing news. Fact is, this Chase remains pretty hopeless.

Things looked good Sunday night, but looks can be deceiving. Martin still has a daunting task ahead if he hopes to catch his Hendrick Motorsports teammate for the Sprint Cup title.

Martin is 73 points behind Johnson heading to Phoenix this weekend, which sounds a lot better than the 184-point deficit he took to Fort Worth.

Now comes that bad part I was talking about: Only once in NASCAR history has a driver won the championship when he trailed the leader by at least 73 points with two races to go.

That's one time in 60 years of stock-car racing.

The only man to pull if off was Alan Kulwicki. He was third in the 1992 standings, 85 points behind leader Bill Elliott with two events remaining. Kulwicki edged Elliott and Davey Allison to win the crown in the final race.

So looking at it from the glass-half-full philosophy, it did happen just 17 years ago. But the man trailing in the standings toward the end hasn't fared well over the years.

A trailing driver with two races to go has come back to win the championship only three times in NASCAR history. And one of those doesn't really count.

Dale Earnhardt is the only man besides Kulwicki to do it in the modern era (since 1972). Earnhardt was 45 points back in 1990 with two events left, but came back to win the championship.

And the man he passed to do it? A 31-year-old Martin, who was competing in his third season for Jack Roush's team.

The other time it happened was 1950, NASCAR's second season. Fireball Roberts moved past Bill Rexford for the points lead in a race at Martinsville, Va.

But Rexford wasn't there. He was racing later that day in Winchester, Ind., and regained the top spot. Officially, Roberts led the standings for a few hours with two races to go.

So it's a rare feat for any driver to win the title when he's behind with two races to go.

One driver did come back with one to go. Richard Petty led the standings with two races left in his 1979 championship, but Darrell Waltrip held a 2-point lead entering the final race at Ontario, Calif. Petty finished fifth and Waltrip was eighth to give Petty the title by 11 points.

"We race the races," Kurt Busch said after his victory at Texas, pulling up to 171 behind Johnson. "We don't do it off paper. The other guys feel like [Johnson] is vulnerable now. Who knows? His game has changed. They definitely have to look over their shoulder."

Johnson didn't sound too worried about it after his 38th-place finish Sunday.

"I hate that we gave up all these points, but it's just one of those things,'' Johnson said afterward. "We're going to two great tracks for us [Phoenix and Homestead] and we'll just keep racing."

History says Johnson is safe. But at least we're talking about Martin's chances instead of wondering whether Johnson will clinch the championship one week early.

* * *

The start-and-park cars are bad enough in Sprint Cup, but it's an absolute embarrassment in the Nationwide Series.

Six drivers called it a day Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway before completing 10 laps. Mark Green and Dennis Setzer took their cars to the garage after two laps. Terry Cook and Johnny Chapman put it on the trailer after four laps.

Could you guys at least fake better and make it a little less obvious that you have no intention of actually competing in the event?

Only 33 drivers raced more than 50 laps of the 200-lap event at TMS. All 10 of those cars left with some type of "mechanical" failure.

The No. 49 Chevy of Jay Robinson Racing is one example of how ridiculous this is. The team has started 28 events his year. It has failed to finish in the last 26, completing less than 50 laps in 23 of those races.

But there are a few admirable exceptions, like 68-year-old Morgan Shepherd at Texas.

Shepherd raced as hard as he could as long as he could. He has a shoestring budget and hoped to take the car he raced at Texas straight to Phoenix in one piece.

Shepherd could have guaranteed it by doing what so many others did by making a meaningless lap or two and shipping out. But Shepherd raced 103 laps before being involved in an accident. He deserves a huge pat on the back.

Every team says it does the best it can with the resources it has. But trying to maintain the illusion of a 43-car field isn't fooling anyone.

NASCAR should take a serious look at reducing the starting field next season to eliminate teams from pretending to race to pick up a check.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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