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
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.