- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Super Bowls rarely live up to the hype, but the anticipation keeps people watching just the same. And after Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon staged a late-race battle worthy of champions at Martinsville Speedway back in April, anticipation is high for a repeat performance Sunday.
When Johnson held off Gordon in April, it was just the second race for the vaunted Car of Tomorrow. At the time, Hendrick Motorsports -- for whom both Johnson and Gordon drive -- and Joe Gibbs Racing clearly were ahead of everyone else in developing the new car.
Time has given other teams a chance to catch up, but if history is a guide, it will surprise no one watching Sunday if Gordon and Johnson are at the front as the Subway 500 (1 p.m. ET, ABC) comes to a close.
Gordon has made 29 starts at the track and has seven wins, 17 top-5s and a staggering 23 top-10s to his credit. Johnson, meanwhile, is tied with Ricky Rudd for second place among active drivers with three wins at the track. And Johnson has just 11 starts there.
In those races, Johnson has been in the top five seven times and finished in the top 10 all but once. Tony Stewart and Mark Martin both have won there twice, but Aric Almirola, not Martin, will be in Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s No. 01 Chevrolet this weekend.
So it's clear the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates are favorites. And if April is any indication, they'll race each other hard -- but clean. Gordon tried knocking Johnson out of the way in the spring but was unable to do so.
With so much at stake now -- and with team owner Rick Hendrick making it abundantly clear for years that his drivers are to race each other hard while keeping the "big picture" in mind -- it's unlikely that either driver would spin the other in pursuit of victory, but that's where the anticipation comes in.
Maybe, just maybe, one will bump the other too hard even though they're great friends and Gordon helped Johnson break into NASCAR's top ranks.
Winner of the past two races, Gordon has four top-5s in the first five races of the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Halfway to his fifth championship, Gordon leads Johnson by just 68 points.
The veteran knows that margin isn't much in the grand scheme.
"We've had a great start to the Chase, but we can't let up," Gordon said. "Jimmie put together a great string of races last year to win the championship, and other Chase drivers have the ability to do that, as well.
"You have to be aggressive but smart and patient during the Chase. I believe that's what will win the championship. Everybody's going to step up their game during the Chase, so we've got to step up our game, too. If they've stepped it up more than us during one particular weekend, we have to keep them in our sights. If they finish first or second, we need to finish third or fourth."
And that's why it's a safe bet Gordon won't take any unnecessary chances to gain one spot on Johnson.
Then again, Johnson says Gordon proved at Talladega with a bold last-lap move that it's all about winning. And that's fine with Johnson, too.
"There's no doubt he wants to beat me, we saw that at Talladega. He made a move and got it done," Johnson said. "But it's not that he hates me and wants to pass me or I hate him and want to pass him. We're friends and we have respect for one another on and off the track, but it comes down to the end of the race. That's what we're out there for ... to get the job done."
While Johnson seemingly has taken to Martinsville from the outset, it took Gordon a while to get up to speed at the track that resembles a paper clip in terms of its layout.
"For me, Martinsville was a difficult place to figure out early in my career," Gordon said of the shortest track on the Nextel Cup Series. "It took a lot of laps during a test session -- I think it was 1994 -- before I found my rhythm here. Throughout that test, nothing was working. So I just started trying some different things -- like how I drove the car and attacked the track -- and we hit on some things."
Not everyone has hit on things where the Car of Tomorrow is concerned, and that led to many finding the racing at Bristol and Talladega less than compelling. Johnson, though, doesn't expect boredom to take hold at Martinsville.
"I think at Martinsville we'll put on a good show. It will be like what we saw in the spring," Johnson said. "I don't think you're going to have the same concerns of a 'big one' on the short track [as was the case at Talladega]. You certainly have spins and catch four or five cars, but you can't clean out 15 cars. So I think everyone will be back to normal and racing hard there. With the bumpers and how tough these cars are, we might actually see a more intense and exciting Martinsville than what we had in the spring."
Gordon likely hopes that isn't the case -- he'd enjoy cruising to victory No. 82, or at least having only his teammate to beat on the way to Victory Lane. Gordon, though, knows it's rarely that easy.
"Tony [Stewart] is very good here, and Clint Bowyer [third in the point standings] has been strong during the Chase," Gordon said. "Jimmie and I had a great battle over the closing laps during the spring race here and I expect the 48 team to be strong again.
"We just couldn't get the DuPont Chevrolet to turn the middle of the corners last time here, so we'll focus on making that better this weekend."
If Gordon's team accomplishes that goal, it might be lights-out for the rest of the field, sort of like how the New England Patriots blew by Dallas in what was considered a Super Bowl preview.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
11dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz