Time running out to derail Johnson's march toward Cup three-peat

Updated: October 31, 2008, 3:43 PM ET

AP Photo/Larry W. Smith

It has been full speed ahead for Jimmie Johnson and crew during the Chase. Will any other driver step up to slow down the No. 48 juggernaut?

Start Your Engines

In 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 Man

Jimmie 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 johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

You Gotta See This

Slippery Slope

Stewart

Tony Stewart: Down, up, down again for Smoke in his last Chase with Joe Gibbs Racing. His head appeared elsewhere as he sparred with Brian Vickers during a 40th-place day at Kansas, but he rebounded the following week for a drought-busting win at Talladega (while crossing the finish line second).

Two races after that, he found himself back in the pack again at Martinsville, finishing 26th. The No. 20 Toyota was a top-10 car for 360 laps, but two dying tires over the next 100 laps on the short track forced him into unscheduled green-flag pit stops. He finished four laps down while also dropping one spot in points, to eighth.

Going The Wrong Way

Busch

Kyle Busch: Yeah, putting the Shrub under this header is like putting the Cincinnati Bengals on a list of bad football teams; not exactly breaking new ground. But we'll take it one step further: This could be the worst Chase performance in the five-year history of the format.

Busch is in 12th place and 445 points out of first after six races, a gap exceeded only by Martin Truex Jr. (447) and Matt Kenseth (462), both last season. And unlike those two, Busch started this Chase in the lead with a sizable cache of 80 bonus points. To take that head start and plunge to the basement off finishes of 34th, 43rd, 28th, 15th, fourth and 29th is mind-blowing. The No. 18 had five finishes outside the top-15 in 26 regular-season races. He has four in six Chase starts.

The caveats: a 12-man Chase field will create bigger gaps in points, Jimmie Johnson is making everyone look bad and Busch's racing luck in the Chase has been ridiculous (three cut tires at Martinsville?). But c'mon. This guy was making everyone else scramble for excuses all summer.

Showing Some Love For …

Gordon

Jeff Gordon: Throw out the early crash at Talladega and this is a nice Chase for the No. 24. Won't be a winning one, thanks to that other Hendrick car he owns (as the listed owner of the No. 48, couldn't he send that team on a mandatory vacation or something?), but it's still solid with four finishes of eighth or better. He's seventh in points but could go several spots higher, not bad for a guy who started tied for last by virtue of his zero regular-season wins.

Martinsville was his second fourth-place day in the Chase, along with Kansas. Of course, he was only the third-best of the four Hendrick cars, but we digress.