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Why watch Atlanta? The drivers can tell you it's worth it

10/25/2008 - NASCAR

HAMPTON, Ga. -- The San Diego Chargers are playing the New Orleans Saints at Wembley Stadium in London. The New York Giants take on the Steelers in Pittsburgh in what could be a Super Bowl preview. Tampa Bay is in Philadelphia for Game 4 of the World Series.

Sunday is a big day in sports.

So why should people care about NASCAR's championship chase, which Jimmie Johnson has all but wrapped up with a 149-point lead over second-place Greg Biffle heading into Atlanta Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, ABC)?

Let's ask the drivers.

"Let me give you my answer," Mark Martin says. "The World Series of what? I don't mean that ugly. I didn't even know they were playing this time of the year. And if you're an idiot like me, then you should watch Sunday."

OK, so Martin is a bit narrow-minded. He probably doesn't realize this is an election year or that the stock market is plummeting, either.

He can tell you whether the softer right-side tires will keep drivers from sliding around the 1.5-mile track like they were on ice, as they did in the spring race. He can tell you this is Michael Waltrip's 1,000th start in NASCAR, and he may be able to tell you that Waltrip's winning percentage in the Sprint Cup series is a miserable .005.

Otherwise, his world is wrapped up in what's happening on the track, and nothing outside of that matters.

"I know it's football season, and that's about all I know," Martin says. "It's not for everybody. If you love football as much as I love racing, you don't need to be watching this race.

"But if you love racing as much as I do, you need to be watching this race and not the World Series or whatever. If you're caught in between, that's why they made DVRs."

Jeff Burton, who is 152 points behind Johnson in third place, is a huge sports fan. If this were the spring race during the NCAA basketball tournament and Duke were playing, he'd be wanting score updates.

And while he admits there's a reason to believe "this thing is over," he says those who tune out the final four races are making a mistake.

"I don't believe that it's over, and anybody who has watched racing long enough, they probably know it's not over as well," he says. "There's still a lot of racing to go. A lot is going to happen between now and then, and I would just recommend people stay tuned."

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who would need a miracle to get back in this at 275 points out in seventh place, is an avid fantasy football fan. But he says it's too early to pay attention to the NFL, and reminds you that you can always catch up on fantasy scores online later in the day.

"Obviously, the World Series is going to be a big thing right now," he says. "Of course, not as many guys are going to be watching from my team because the Red Sox aren't in it and the Yankees aren't in it."

But Gordon would recommend watching this race regardless what else is taking place at the same time.

"Atlanta puts on one of the greatest races out there," he says. "I never try to strong-arm fans into watching. They should watch it because they want to watch it. If they've got to pick and choose, that's what DVRs are for.

"You can record some things here and there. Make sure you watch racing live, and you can go back and watch those other things."

Kyle Busch has every reason to be disinterested in this race. He's in 12th place, 445 points behind, after dominating the regular season with eight wins. But even he says there are reasons to watch.

"To see who wrecks and what the next feud is coming up," he says.

That's always a good argument in this soap opera. Those who ignored the race two weeks ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway missed the WWE-like confrontation between Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.

As for predicting the next feud, Busch says: "[Tony] Stewart hasn't done anything all year. Maybe it's his turn."

He pauses and then adds: "I doubt it. He's been a good boy."

NASCAR's perennial good boy and avid Green Bay Packers fan Matt Kenseth jokingly says there's only one reason to watch.

"Well, I'm gonna be in it," he says with a smile.

Seriously, Kenseth adds, "this is one of the best races we have all year."

Johnson said he believes the Chase should take precedence because "racing is cool" and Atlanta is a great track that often promotes great finishes, such as in 2005, when Edwards used a slingshot move to get past him in the final turn for the win.

Not a great sell. But that's the corporate Johnson speaking, not the one who fell off the roof of a golf cart during the offseason a few years ago.

Everybody likes something new, and it would be hard to make Jimmie's dominance new. But what he's doing is really cool, and it has a lot more significance than people realize.

-- Mark Martin

"Baseball is interesting," he says. "I do enjoy watching it. In fact … [someone] owes me two beers 'cause I picked right over the last two nights, so I do keep my eyes on other sports as well and think it is interesting.

"But if you love cars, you have to watch our races."

The fact that Johnson is four races from becoming the first person to win three straight titles since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) also should be a factor. This is like watching Tiger Woods go for a Grand Slam or the New York Yankees for three straight titles.

It's history.

"Sometimes in this sport I've noticed really big achievements sometimes go unnoticed," Martin says. "Jimmie has just been so incredibly dominant in the last three years it would be a lot bigger news story if it was Jeff Burton going for his first championship.

"Everybody likes something new, and it would be hard to make Jimmie's dominance new. But what he's doing is really cool, and it has a lot more significance than people realize."

Again, Martin is a bit narrow-minded. He doesn't even know Tampa Bay and Philadelphia are playing in the World Series.

"Oh," he says. "That's why it says 'Go Phillies!' on [the racing Web site] Jayski."

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