Talladega the great equalizer? Not for JJ
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Now granted, this is a wild, weird, crazy -- and maybe haunted -- old place. But ruin Jimmie Johnson's bid to four-peat?
The "There's always Talladega" rationale for those who seek to catch him?
Please. Please. Give me a break.
Talladega, Schmalladega, as far as JJ is concerned -- or should be.
This has to be the least tense, least hairy Talladega fall race Johnson has started in all four championship bids in this onslaught.
"They've played it just the way they wanted to play it," Jeff Gordon said of his teammate/protégé's No. 48 team. "They wanted to get themselves in position to have a big enough lead to where this race doesn't necessarily determine the outcome."
Gordon and Mark Martin, both Hendrick Motorsports teammates of Johnson, are the only two drivers JJ is in the least worried about in this Chase. Still, Martin is a whopping 118 points behind and Gordon 150.
Let's take the worst possible scenario for Johnson in Sunday's Amp Energy 500: He wrecks or blows up on the very first lap, and Martin goes on to lead the most laps and win the race.
Martin would get 195 points for that, and Johnson 34 for finishing last. And Martin would leave this place -- his all-time nemesis track -- with a 43-point lead.
"I'm not counting on THAT good a day!" Martin guffawed Friday, looking up at me from his director's chair behind his hauler as if I'd gone off the deep end.
This, though Martin has been preaching to anybody who'll listen -- and, it seems, largely to himself -- that he's just not going to wreck Sunday, and he's going to have a very good day.
"I don't think there's any possible way I can be in a wreck this time," said Martin, a believer in the law of averages after all his misfortunes here -- he wrecked out on only the fifth lap here last spring. "And I'm gonna race like there's no way that I could be in a wreck."
You could almost hear his brain synapses firing at high speed -- self-psych-self-psych-self-psych.
But to slow them down, just mention dominating a race at Talladega Superspeedway.
"You can't stay out front," he said. "No matter who you are. I was doing that [running in the front drafting line] in the race last time here where I got in a wreck on the fifth lap."
So let's get real -- or a little closer to real -- and say Martin wins the race but doesn't lead the most laps. He gets 190, and Johnson gets 34, so Martin comes out leading by 38 -- entirely erasable in just one race at Texas, Phoenix or Homestead-Miami, one of the three venues left after they leave Casino de Alabama, the world's largest roulette wheel.
Go to Gordon, with his 150-point deficit, and the best possible scenarios with JJ going out immediately are that Gordon leaves here with leads of 11 or five points, leaving a toss-up the rest of the way.
And the chances of those extreme scenarios are virtually nil, when you factor in the start-and-park guys who go out early, and the fact Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus talked for an hour and a half on Thursday, Knaus armed with a calculator and going over just about any possible scenario in which they might have trouble.
Now of course this is the last place where Johnson wants to come off as cocky going into a race, so he expressed some angst along with admitting that, yes, he's in better shape coming here than ever before with a championship on the line.
"In some ways it's less tense," he demurred when I asked him Friday. "When I look at the points, knowing we've never been in this strong of a position in the points [coming here], it does make me feel better. And, yes, the deficit wouldn't be as bad if the worst situation happened to the 48.
"But I still look at it and know that anything can happen in those other three races.
If I do well here, and so does Jimmie, I've still got an uphill battle in front of me. But I've got a feeling it might not work out that way.” -- Mark Martin
"I also know that I'm racing my teammates right now for this championship," he said. Martin and Gordon are the only two with any realistic shots at catching him. Tony Stewart, fourth, 192 behind, is hanging by a thread.
"The 5 car [Martin] won Phoenix [in the spring]," Johnson continued, maybe worrying a bit but maybe also trying to infuse some suspense into his runaway toward a four-peat. "Jeff won at Texas [also in the spring].
"So when I look at the races following [this one], I don't want to spot these guys any points. I don't want to have to chase them in the points."
In other words, what NASCAR publicists are hoping for -- a battle right down to Homestead-Miami on Nov. 21 -- is the last thing Johnson wants.
He'd rather coast into Florida, having clinched -- uh-oh for NASCAR -- at Phoenix the week before.
"I'd love to leave here with at least 118 [points of padding]," Johnson said. "I'd love to have more, but we could really put ourselves in a good position if we left here without losing any points."
Martin, who fought two championship wars with Dale Earnhardt and was the target of the Intimidator's notorious attempts at working on opponents' heads, gave the 48 team at least a pot shot Friday.
"I'd be uptight if I was that bunch," Martin said of the 48 branch of HMS. "I'm not, 'cause it don't matter. It just really don't matter to me.
"But to them it matters. Because if they have trouble, and Jeff and I don't, then, boy, the race is on."
Martin then got real and then surreal
"If I do well here, and so does Jimmie," he said, acknowledging the most realistic scenario for Sunday, "I've still got an uphill battle in front of me."
Then he added: "But I've got a feeling it might not work out that way."
Martin's eerie positive feeling and the old superstitions of the Talladega Jinx -- those are the only two forces with a chance of hurting Johnson badly in the points.
Hmmm wonder if I've hexed him now
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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