Commentary

Johnson's mastery of Martinsville puts 48 team within striking distance of title

Just how dominant was Jimmie Johnson Sunday at Martinsville Speedway? Look inside the numbers: 339 laps led and a 149-point cushion in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Yes, folks, JJ is at it again, writes David Newton.

Updated: October 19, 2008, 11:49 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson warned everybody. He said he was comfortable being in the points lead before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, something that admittedly made him antsy a few years ago. He said he enjoyed the idea of controlling the championship race.

OK. OK. Everybody gets it.

Johnson is as good at leading the points as he was in playing catch-up to capture the last two titles.

He turned this Chase into a one-man show Sunday, expanding his 69-point cushion over second place to 149 with a dominating victory on this half-mile track in the foothills of Virginia.

How dominant?

Johnson led more laps (339) than in any of his five Martinsville wins, including four of the past five. He led all but eight of the final 214 laps, and would have led them all had Matt Kenseth not stayed out while the leaders pitted for the final time.

"That's what you call point racing -- getting them all," crew chief Chad Knaus said over the in-car radio as Johnson did his burnout.

To say the Chase is over may be overstated, but few can make a case for anybody else to win.

And nobody has gone into the final four races with a bigger lead.

"It's going to be hard to stop them," said Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon. "I just don't know if there is a combination out there that is as diverse and good -- Jimmie as a driver, Chad as a crew chief and Hendrick as an organization."

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJimmie Johnson, left, won this battle with teammate Jeff Gordon, who finished fourth Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was so impressed with his teammate that he compared him to some of the sport's all-time greats, including his dad, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.

"I think about Richard Petty, maybe [David] Pearson and Cale Yarborough and Junior Johnson and later on Darrell [Waltrip] and Johnson," he said. "I put them right up there with those teams.

"Dad and Jeff and several other great competitors were great race car drivers and had awesome careers. To pack it in three years and dominate like that, there's only a good half-dozen teams that's ever done anything like that, being that strong consistently."

Should Johnson maintain his lead over the next four weeks, he would make history, becoming the first driver since Yarborough to win three straight titles (1976 to 1978).

There's no reason to think he won't. He won at the next three tracks -- Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix -- a year ago to become the first driver since Gordon (1997, '98) to win consecutive championships.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't do the same thing," Gordon said.

This is like Tiger Woods with the lead in the final round of a major. Like Mariano Rivera with a one-run lead and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Like Michael Phelps approaching the wall in whatever Olympic swimming event he's entered.

And the scary part is this team doesn't settle for being good. With 120 laps remaining Sunday and the caution out, Knaus radioed Johnson, "We're going to make some small adjustments. I think you're going to like it."

Like it? Johnson was dominating before the changes.

"It's real easy in this industry to get complacent," Knaus said. "If you win races you get comfortable where you're at. ... If you're a true competitor, you're never satisfied.

"You can call it greed or anything you want. If we had left the car alone and [Earnhardt] and [third-place Carl Edwards] made adjustments and gotten better than us, that would have been shame on us."

We're happy to be in this position, but there's no room for complacency. We've got to continue to push and go for wins.

-- Chad Knaus

The only shame Knaus is feeling these days is that Johnson isn't going for five straight titles. He takes it personally that they fell eight points short in 2004 and had a chance to win in 2005 going into the final race.

"I'd like to somehow get those two championships back," he said.

So those who expect this team to stop taking chances and back its way into the title should look no further than the early laps Sunday, when Johnson was making three-wide passes on a track where two-wide is a challenge.

Some might call that crazy.

Johnson called it calculated moves.

"The hungrier we can stay, and having performances like this weekend, that's what's going to make this thing right," he said. "That's what's going to win championships."

Knaus agreed.

"We're happy to be in this position, but there's no room for complacency," he said. "We've got to continue to push and go for wins."

Nobody is better at winning in the Chase than Johnson. Twelve of his 39 career victories have come over the final 10 races since the playoff format was adopted in 2004.

That's more than most drivers in the field have in their careers.

"It's unbelievable how they just come on so strong and they get the momentum whenever it counts," said Gordon, who finished fourth after running second to Johnson for much of this cool, sun-splashed afternoon.

That they're coming on strong now without having to play catch-up is bad news for everybody. That Johnson has grown comfortable in this position is even worse news.

"That comes from experience," Johnson said. "Somebody like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, you go through guys that dominate year after year. Some people can't do that. I'd love to be that guy."

Right now he is that guy.

"I'm ready to go to Atlanta," Johnson said with a smile. "I wish we were dropping the green flag at Atlanta now."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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