Johnson preparing for emotional weekend
Stewart, who technically leads the Chase for the Nextel Cup by virtue of having one more win than Johnson this season, dominated at the Virginia track in April, only to watch a broken right front wheel on the 431st of 500 laps derail his chances of victory.
Johnson, meanwhile, won this race a year ago. Alas, it's a victory overshadowed by one of the most tragic days in NASCAR's history. Instead of celebrating the win, Johnson and the members of the four Hendrick Motorsports teams in the race learned that one of the team's planes had crashed on the way to Virginia that morning, killing all 10 aboard.
A short-track win had been one of Johnson's goals entering 2004, but none of that mattered in the grand scheme of things. Now, though, both drivers head to the paper-clip oval in search of the race that will help distance them from the pack. Or at least keep them in the thick of things if the Chase leaders all finish up front.
And Johnson knows there will be plenty of opportunity for trouble on the track this weekend.
"I think that Martinsville is a place where contact is going to come into play and tempers are going to be high, like at Bristol," Johnson says. "There's a lot on the line for Chase contenders. It's a track where you can never get away from lapped cars or cars that you're racing, so the potential is there to have contact and problems.
"The track, since they resurfaced it, it's really a single-file track on the bottom. The way you make your position is by somebody making a mistake, or you help them make a mistake."
Stewart's not nearly as worried about getting caught up in a mess not of his making at Martinsville as he was while at Talladega, Ala. He's more likely to compare Martinsville to Bristol, Tenn.
"They're the kind of tracks where, if you have a good qualifying run and you have a great race car, then the race is a lot of fun," Stewart says. "If you have a car in the race that's not driving well and you have a bad qualifying run and a bad pit selection and you end up fighting the car all day, then a place like Martinsville becomes a very tough track. But that's also one of the reasons why when you do win there, it means so much. Plus, their grandfather clock is one of the coolest trophies around."
Johnson never got to celebrate winning the traditional grandfather clock last October. Instead of going to Victory Lane, his car was stopped and he was given the tragic news. Among those killed in the crash were team president John Hendrick and his twin daughters; Ricky Hendrick, a one-time competitor in the Craftsman Truck and Busch series and the lone son of team owner Rick Hendrick; and Randy Dorton, who headed the team's engine department.
Johnson and his teammates fought through their grief, with Johnson winning his third straight race a week later at Atlanta. He rallied to within eight points of the championship, but couldn't overtake Kurt Busch.
Johnson and his crew obviously would welcome another torrid stretch of racing, and he thinks it could be easier to do that now than it was last year when the crew was dealing with so much. Still, he knows this weekend won't be easy.
"Back in the spring, all the emotions came back," Johnson says. "Went back for the test last week, and you can't help but think about it. Atlanta is going to be that way, too, pulling into Atlanta. Just it's hard to forget those things, you know.
"One thing that I feel so [bad about] and that's coming up, all the families, dealing with this one-year anniversary, it's going to be so tough for all of them. I know they all do different things to help the anniversary pass, and with as little pain as possible. But another person that I'm going to be thinking of quite a bit is [teammate] Brian Vickers; it's his birthday. The anniversary of the plane crash is on his birthday of all things. So as a teammate and as a friend, [I want] to be there for him as well as the other people that lost loved ones on the flight."
The best way Johnson knows to honor those lost is by winning the championship. That's what he'll be focusing on whenever possible this weekend at Martinsville.
"We have great tracks coming up for us, and it's really anybody's championship at this point," Johnson says. "I think, after five races, I'm shocked just like everyone else how close the championship race is. I think that over the next five, it's only going to be more interesting, more aggressive, more stress and pressure, and it's going to be right down to the very end, I think."
Asked whether he'd like to clinch the championship with a race to spare, Stewart, the sport's 2002 champ, says it doesn't really matter. At this point, winning it is all that counts.
How it happens isn't important - just as long as it happens.
"I don't care if we win it by one point as long as we get it done. That's the whole goal," Stewart says. "Nobody will remember 10 or 20 years down the line how much anybody won it by. It matters whether you got it or not. That's why I say I really haven't been paying attention to it right now. I'm not letting that points sheet monopolize my week. I'm into figuring out what we need to do each week to be fast. At the end of the day, I look at the points sheet for five minutes, and that's the end of it for me."
Stewart's learned what it takes to run well at Martinsville, a place he didn't really enjoy going to his first year or two in Cup racing. Then again, he points out that it's not as though he really has had any choice in the matter.
"You learn how to protect the car. You learn how to not beat it up. You learn it's a lot more fun racing when you use a lot more patience," Stewart says. "Patience seems to be the biggest variable that can hold you up at a place like Martinsville. Needless to say, after going there a couple of times, I've learned how to be patient -- out of necessity, basically."
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli says that as long as Stewart's in the right frame of mind, the rest will take care of itself.
"Running well at Martinsville is all about the attitude you have when you walk in the gate Friday morning," Zipadelli says. "That will dictate whether you have a good weekend or a bad weekend. I really think it boils down to that. As soon as you get frustrated, you get behind.
"Martinsville is one of those places where you can't ask your driver to drive harder because that's what'll get you in trouble. Track position has always been a big deal, so qualifying well is important, not only in terms of where you'll start on the race track but for pit selection as well."
Johnson, though, is the driver heading to Martinsville with momentum on his side after winning at Charlotte.
"We're happy to be winning already in the Chase. Last year, we won four; this year, so far, two," Johnson says. "So it's coming at a good time. We had a slow couple months before the Chase started. We definitely have things going in the right direction right now.
"But it's tough to carry momentum from a mile-and-a-half track to a half-mile track. It's totally different. Luckily, for us, it's a track that we've won at before. We know how to race there and what to do."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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