Johnson hoping to widen points lead at Hendrick-friendly Martinsville

Updated: October 24, 2008, 1:11 PM ET

AP Photo/Don Petersen

Jeff Gordon congratulates teammate Jimmie Johnson on his October 2007 victory at Martinsville.

Start Your Engines

Looking back at the halfway point, this Chase has not lacked a wide cast of characters. From Greg Biffle winning his way into the title picture to Jeff Burton staying solidly in the hunt with his usual consistency to Carl Edwards going from favorite to rabble-rouser, each race has offered something different.

Each race also has served up the same thing -- Jimmie Johnson finishing ninth or better and showing no signs of surrendering his Sprint Cup.

This Chase isn't over, but the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 has held points leads of 72 and 69 after the past two races. And if there was ever a favorable spot coming on the schedule for Johnson, it's Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET, ABC) at Martinsville, Va.

Johnson has showed dominance at a variety of tracks in his two-year title run, but the paper-clip half-mile at Martinsville is a particular favorite. He has won three of the past four Martinsville Chase races and four overall, with teammate Jeff Gordon picking up four wins himself in the past five years.

It has been a Hendrick haven, and correspondingly not the best place for those who will need a solid showing Sunday to keep pace in the standings.

Burton, second in points after his win this past week at Charlotte, won at the short track in 1997 but has just three top-10s in his past nine starts there. Biffle, third in points and 86 back, has one top-10 (seventh last October) in his 11-race Martinsville career.

Those figures haven't gone unnoticed.

"Absolutely I'm looking at the history," Johnson said. "When I look at the majority of the field, Phoenix and Martinsville both have been great tracks. Tracks where we've been able to get a lot of points on guys that we're racing for the Chase.

"I think back to Burton and the last few races [out] there, he's certainly been strong. Maybe not the dominant car, but he's run well. I look at the 16 [Biffle] last time we were up there, the last two times we were there, and Greg's been much stronger than he's been in the past. So I feel these guys kind of recognize that Martinsville has been a tough one for them, and they've stepped up their programs. I'm not expecting it to be an easy day on Sunday, but I'm hopeful that history repeats and we're able to get some points on these guys."

No one thinks of Martinsville as a dangerous place like a Talladega, but it's equally capable of shaking up the standings after 500 laps of banging, braking, and more banging.

"Martinsville might be the last real land mine in the Chase," said Clint Bowyer, who drives for Richard Childress Racing and is fifth in points. "It is so tight that if something happens in front of you, it's pretty easy to get caught up in it. You're not going very fast compared to a lot of other tracks, but you're still going plenty fast to tear your stuff up. It takes a different driving style."

It's a style that Johnson has mastered. The rest of the Chasers might need another track in the final five to serve as Johnson's hiccup race, if such a race is out there at all in this year's Chase.

Rocket Man

Jeff Burton: The No. 31 Chevrolet is one of those cars that never surfaces immediately when talk turns to the best in the garage, yet by the end of a race -- or the midpoint of a Chase -- there it is. For the second time in three years, Burton is in the heart of title contention, this time second in points after winning at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

In 2006, he led the Chase after five races, only to blow an engine at Martinsville and drop out of contention. This time, expect him to keep hanging around. Only Johnson, Edwards and Kyle Busch have more top-10s this season, and of course Johnson is the only one of those three with a real title shot with five weeks to go.

"We've come into this thing very relaxed, committed to having a good time, committed to having fun," the Richard Childress Racing driver said. "We may have gotten a little too tight [in 2006] because, you know, we'd never done it before. This year, we just said, 'You know what, we're going to go, have a good time, race hard, we're going to do the best we can, and it will be what it will be.'"

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

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Edwards

Carl Edwards: Backflips and his perpetual grin are nice and all, but we were kind of enjoying Edwards as the black hat these last couple of weeks. First the No. 99 Ford wrecks half the Chasers at Talladega, then its driver spars with Kevin Harvick at Charlotte over a note he left in the Chevy driver's plane. (Ah, the squabbles of the rich.)

The Roush Fenway car started second after rained-out qualifying for the Saturday night race, and conventional wisdom was that he'd have a good run, leave the track still in contention and maybe continue as the black hat of the Chase. Well, the deal with wearing that hat is running well while making enemies, and Edwards couldn't do either after ignition problems all but parked him. Now he has back-to-back bad finishes and a 168-point deficit.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Caught up in the late-race mess at Talladega and the victim of a blown tire at Charlotte. What else can go wrong for the No. 88 that has zero to do with his driving? As he said, he couldn't have taken it any easier Saturday night yet he was still snakebit.

Sitting 10th in points, 354 out, maybe Junior can get the rest of his bad luck out in the next five races and look ahead to a better sophomore season with Hendrick in 2009.

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Busch

Kurt Busch: He was never a threat to make this year's Chase, but the Penske Dodge No. 2 has two top-6 finishes in five Chase races, something half the playoff teams can't say. Busch's third-place run at Lowe's Motor Speedway was his best finish since a June win at New Hampshire and the best finish for Dodge's new-generation engine.

"We were pushing hard trying to get numbers on it for next year. It's just a big rebound from where we were in Kansas [finishing 30th] a few weeks ago," Busch said.