AP Photo/Larry W. Smith
Start Your EnginesIn golf's British Open, the engraver of the Claret Jug is always shown on television late on Sunday afternoon as he begins to etch the winner's name onto the base of the famed trophy. If such a man existed in Sprint Cup, put it this way -- he wouldn't quite be starting to place "J i m " on the trophy, but he would be sharpening his tools and reminding himself that it's "ie" and not "y" in the man's first name. Jimmie Johnson is getting close. The October portion of the Chase schedule has only served to solidify Johnson's chances of becoming the first three-peat champion since Cale Yarborough from 1976-78. In winning at Kansas on Sept. 28, the No. 48 Chevrolet moved into the points lead by 10 points over Carl Edwards, 30 over Greg Biffle, 121 over Jeff Burton. Three races later those three drivers are still the ones most capable of reeling in the Hendrick Motorsports driver, but all they have proceeded to do through the middle of the Chase is make the job more difficult by failing to match Johnson's run of top-10s. Through Talladega, Charlotte and Martinsville, Edwards and Biffle had only one top-10 each and, at Talladega, Edwards took himself and teammate Biffle out in a late crash. Burton won at Charlotte but stumbled to 17th at Martinsville, while Johnson won again. Consequently they're all now 149 to 198 points back. Now the Chase isn't entirely in their hands anymore, but they could at least help themselves by stopping the bleeding Sunday at Atlanta (1 p.m. ET, ABC), the seventh of 10 Chase races. "If he finishes fifth in all those [final four] races, there's nothing we can do about that. But we can just try and go there and do our best," Biffle said. "I think we're gonna be really good at Atlanta. I think we're gonna be really good at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. I just don't see why we're not and I feel like we can beat the 48." Is that a bold forecast? It is against a driver in Johnson who just happened to put together a four-race win streak at this time last year. But all Chase drivers can hold their own on the mile-and-a-half ovals, running well on those tracks is what put them in the Chase to start with. Edwards, in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford, loves Atlanta. He got his first Cup win there in the 2005 spring race and doubled up in the fall. He blew an engine at this year's spring race, but otherwise has six finishes of seventh or better in eight starts. "Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks to race at," Edwards said. "I get excited just driving through the tunnel." Problem is, Johnson probably does, too. He has won two of the four Chase-era fall races at Atlanta, plus last year's spring race, and has eight top-5 finishes in 14 starts. He'll also carry similarly strong histories into Texas next week, and Phoenix after that. Yet he's not telling the engraver to get to work. "Overconfident would be a mistake. Cocky, we are going to get our hand slammed in the door. It's just not what we are about and how we operate right," Johnson said. "We feel very good about what we are doing and where we are at right now. But the hungrier we can stay, to go out and have performances like we did [at Martinsville], that's what is going to make this thing right and that's how we would want to win a championship." Right now, it's hard to picture any other scenario.
Rocket ManJimmie Johnson: Did you hear the air sucked out of the Chase late Sunday afternoon? JJ has used Martinsville as a catalyst in each of his championship seasons, but in the last two years a win at the paper clip was more of a start than a finish. In 2006 he left Martinsville third in points behind Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick, not taking over the top spot until after the eighth Chase race at Texas. Last year, a Martinsville win still left him 53 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. Again, Texas was the turning point where he went in front for good. This year, he's been atop the standings since winning at Kansas, the second Chase race. Winning at Martinsville again pushed his points lead from 69 to 149, a cushion the rest of the field didn't need to give him. John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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