Commentary

It's down to wishful thinking for Burton, Biffle and Edwards

Jimmie Johnson may well be on his way to a third straight Cup title. But Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards aren't conceding just yet, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: October 20, 2008, 1:47 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Quirky, treacherous little Martinsville Speedway didn't cause so much a shake-up as a shakeout in the Chase on Sunday.

With four races remaining, the Sprint Cup championship hunt is down to Jimmie Johnson and … uh … some wishful thinking by, and outside chances for, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton.

It's not over … not exactly.

But the paper-clip-shaped old track with its cramped pit stalls shook Biffle to 149 points behind Johnson and Burton to 152, and those are Johnson's nearest two competitors.

Both caught bad breaks in the Tums QuikPak 500 while Johnson won going away.

Burton had a bad car to boot, hopelessly loose for most of the race. When he and his crew finally got it working right, they were nailed by NASCAR with a one-lap penalty for pitting outside their box. Burton wound up 17th.

Biffle got caught a lap down in midrace when he had to pit out of sequence for gas under green, and the rest of the field caught a caution soon afterward. He didn't get a free pass back into the lead lap until it was too late for a top-10 finish, and he wound up 12th.

Thus, Biffle and Burton were seriously shaken out.

But you know race drivers: What? Them worry? The hole they're in is -- what? -- half full.

"Hell, I don't think this is the nail at all," Burton said soon after climbing out of his car. "I fully expected to come here and see the 48 [Johnson] run well. If it surprises anybody that the 48 ran well at Martinsville, they're crazy."

This was Johnson's fourth win in the past five Martinsville races, and his fifth overall here.

[+] EnlargeJeff Burton
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireJeff Burton, left, is 152 points off the Chase lead after finishing 17th at Martinsville. Carl Edwards, right, finished third but is 198 points behind.

"This, I think, is their strongest racetrack of everywhere they run," Burton said. "I think they run here better than anywhere, and they run well at a lot of places.

"So I don't view this thing as over."

"No! Uh-uh!" Biffle said. "We can catch 'em."

Biffle wasn't surprised Johnson and the 48 team padded their points lead here.

"We fully expected them to," Biffle said. "We're leaving with not exactly what we thought. We wanted to be in the top 10. We were hoping he wouldn't win. …

"Our goal was to finish in the top 10, and we finished 12th -- I don't think we can complain too much."

But 161 points is the largest swing possible in a single race between two drivers, assuming both drivers start. So Johnson can afford one terrible day in the remaining four races and still be neck-and-neck with Biffle and Burton.

"I feel like we can beat 'em at these next four racetracks," Biffle said.

Of those, three are 1.5-mile ovals, his favorites -- Atlanta next week, Texas the next, and Homestead-Miami for the finale -- "plus, I love [1-mile] Phoenix."

That makes "four tracks I absolutely love," Biffle said.

Burton's one-lap penalty came with 42 laps remaining when he tried to pit but suddenly found Jeff Gordon's car running between him and his pit box. Burton stopped and waited for Gordon to pass, then had to turn hard left and slightly overshot his box.

"[Gordon] didn't do anything wrong, and I didn't do anything wrong," Burton said. "I tried to stop because he was coming out, and when I did I was so far down the pit road it was hard to get positioned in the box.

"We pitted and we were over the line, but the official didn't call it immediately. So our guys started changing tires, and then we got a tire off, and then he called it."

Our goal was to finish in the top 10, and we finished 12th -- I don't think we can complain too much.

-- Greg Biffle

The rule is that if a driver overshoots his box slightly, he may back up without penalty, so long as the crew has not yet commenced work. But any work begun outside the box draws the one-lap penalty.

"We were over the line, no doubt," Burton said. "But they needed to call it right then and there, so we could have reacted. We didn't know we were over the line until we already had the tires off.

"So, bad break. The official didn't do anything wrong. It's hard to make everything happen that quickly."

But beyond the penalty, "we just didn't run good enough," said Burton, who'd been struggling outside the top 10 even before the bad stop.

"We just fought rear grip," he said, "which really surprised me. I thought that would be our strength today. And it wasn't."

He took blame for that.

"I missed something in practice [Saturday]," he said. "I missed something I was feeling, and I didn't give [my crew] the right information."

Carl Edwards had the best Martinsville finish of his career (third), but still lost points to Johnson. Edwards came in 168 points behind -- already a serious deficit -- and left 198 back.

How does it feel to be running the best you ever have at baffling, maddening Martinsville, and still see that 48 car ahead and moving away, lap after lap?

"It feels just like you think it would feel like," Edwards said. "You think, 'Damn, those guys are good.'"

So good, in fact, that Biffle, Burton and Edwards are going to have to focus hard on their wishful thinking, and keep it intense, just to keep their heads up.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE