Bruce Martin
Monday October 20th, 2008

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- With four races to go in the Chase for the Championship, these are the words that NASCAR doesn't want to hear: It's over.

Jimmie Johnson's dominant victory in Sunday's TUMS Quikpak 500 at Martinsville Speedway gives him a 149-point lead over Greg Biffle. That's the largest lead in the five-year history of the Chase with four races to go.

Biffle is still mathematically alive, but it would take a monumental collapse by Johnson to keep from winning his third title in a row. Only one driver in NASCAR history, Cale Yarborough (1976-78), has won three Cup titles in succession.

Johnson's latest win -- his third win in this race in the last four years at Martinsville -- had teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. comparing Johnson to some of the best drivers in the sport's history.

"Obviously Daddy [seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt] had a great run and was dominant," Junior said. "He won a lot of races on just brute instinct and determination. But they only really dominated the sport in 1987 and maybe a little bit in '86. All of the other things they did in sport were just by brute determination.

"But Jimmie and those guy are slick and they are faster [every] week, and they win races by being the best car. I look at the history of the sport, and I think about Richard Petty and David Pearson and the Wood brothers and Cale Yarborough, and later on Darrell (Waltrip) and Junior (Johnson), and I put them right up there with them teams there. There are maybe only a good handful or half a dozen teams that are in that group, and I feel like they are really achieving that.

"To do it, Dad and Jeff [Gordon] and several other great competitors, Rusty (Wallace) and all those guys, were great race car drivers and had awesome careers. But to pack it in three years and just dominate like that, there's only a good half a dozen teams that's ever been good like that and been that strong consistently year after year after year."

Three championships in three years would be quite an accomplishment, but in crew chief Chad Knaus' mind, it would be evening up a score from a few seasons ago.

"We have got a great opportunity to do a lot of things. I feel like we -- and myself, primarily -- gave away two championships in 2004 in 2005, and I feel like we had a big learning curve at that point, and I'd like to somehow get those championships back."

NASCAR probably wouldn't mind if there were a little more drama involved in Johnson & Co. doing so this year, but that's not likely to happen. This one is over.

After struggling with his Dodge Charger throughout the race, including lengthy repairs in the Martinsville garage area that had him running 31 laps off the pace, Kurt Busch radioed to his crew before a restart on lap 390 and asked, "Would it be all right if I parked this car?"

"Absolutely not, stay out," Walt Czarnecki radioed back.

"Ten-four," Busch said. "If I get hurt in this thing, thanks, appreciate it."

Team owner Roger Penske has fired IndyCar drivers for far less than that exchange. Just ask Paul Tracy, who was dumped in the late 1990s for ripping the team after dropping out of a CART race.

Other than it's 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500, with Ryan Newman winning ahead of Busch, this team has struggled this season. Newman, of course, is leaving at the end of the year to join Tony Stewart at Newman Haas Racing. Third driver Sam Hornish Jr. has struggled to stay in the top 35 most of this year. And Busch hasn't exactly been stellar, leading one to wonder how this team can return to prominence in 2009.

Here's an idea -- switch from Dodge to Toyota. It would make sense because Joe Gibbs Racing has shown this season how competitive the Toyota can be. While Dodge is currently developing a new engine, the payoff may be down the road.

While teams continue to refine the current generation Sprint Cup car, a new one is being tested for the Nationwide Series and is set to debut in 2010.

Teams tested it on Sept. 8-9 at Richmond for the first time on a short track and had a three-day session at Lowe's last week to see how it performed on a 1.5-mile track. The first test on a superspeedway won't come until early 2009.

"It is not a car that is a gain for performance, but it is a race able race car," Kyle Busch said after driving it at Lowe's. "It's definitely better than the Cup car, but some of that has to do with the motor. Less motor makes it easier to drive. It drives similar to the old Nationwide car but the interior feels like the Cup car."

The most noticeable change is a spoiler, instead of a wing, on the rear of the car. The front fascia is dimensionally different with a lower common piece below the bumper, a different splitter and no bump stops. The body has the same "green house" as the Cup car, but from the door tops down, it is different. The rear is boxier and jacked up -- similar to the way the "Muscle Cars" on the street looked in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Busch was the first to win in the current Sprint Cup Car of Tomorrow when he drove it to victory at Bristol in March 2007, and afterwards he complained that it drove like a "milk crate." Well, by bringing "Pony Cars" into the mix rather than the boring sedans, which don't look very racey to begin with, NASCAR, it seems, has figured out how to build a better "Milk Crate."

Instead of gradually phasing in the Nationwide car with a select number of races next season, it will be a full rollout in 2010, beginning with the first race of the season at Daytona.

In case you didn't notice, three Americans finished in the top 11 at the Malaysian Grand Prix MotoGP on Sunday. Nicky Hayden was fourth for his fourth consecutive top-five result, a streak that started with a runner-up finish at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP on Sept. 14 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Colin Edwards finished eighth, his third straight top-10 result, and John Hopkins came in 11th.

Valentino Rossi had already clinched the world championship when he scored his ninth victory of the season, edging pole-sitter Dani Pedrosa by 4.008 seconds. But Rossi also had to beat the heat because the steamy race included temperatures at 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

"A couple of times I was able to get in front of Dovi, but he held tough," Hayden said. "Man, he doesn't give in for nothing. It was a fun battle. I tried everything I could.

"Maybe I should have tried something a little more silly on the last lap. That's always hindsight, but sure, I'll beat myself up tonight, thinking I should have taken some bigger chances, but I was already pushing hard."

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain found the best way to overcome adversity and silence his critics was a decisive victory on the race course. He did that by winning Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix with a convincing 14.9-second triumph over his championship rival Felipe Massa of Brazil. But with the final F1 Grand Prix of the season coming up in Brazil, will Hamilton be able to overcome Massa's home-track advantage?

Hamilton has a seven-point lead over Massa heading into the finale. If he finishes fifth of better, the 23-year-old Hamilton will become the youngest Formula One World Champion. He took a similar lead into the final race of 2007 at the same track and ended up losing the championship to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.

"I've got a seven-point lead in the world championship but that doesn't allow me to take anything for granted," Hamilton said. "I think our approach to this race was right. It was not to go out and win everything just in this race. It was to look at both races to try and score as many points collectively.

"I know going to Brazil will be a much better situation compared to last year and also we know that we will be a lot more competitive than we are here, so that is comforting. We know that we have got to do a good job. It will be tough ... but hopefully as a team we can pull through."

Hamilton represents a new face to the stuffy sport of Formula One. The Englishman of African descent would score the world's most prestigious racing championship and continue F1's legacy of diversity.

Meantime in the United States, a driver of color can't get a full-time ride in either NASCAR Sprint Cup or the IndyCar Series. Former Formula One driver Juan Montoya of Colombia and Hispanic driver Aric Almirola are the face of NASCAR's diversity effort, even though neither came up through the diversity program.

But in F1's case, Hamilton is on the verge of a World Championship and that would be truly historic.

On Sunday, IndyCar Series officials, drivers and team members set out for the long trip from the United States to Surfer's Paradise, Australia, for next weekend's Nikon Indy 300 street race on the Gold Coast. Too bad the race doesn't count.

When the IndyCar Series unified by absorbing what was left over when Champ Car went out of business in February, one of the considerations given to former Champ Car boss Kevin Kalkhoven (an Australian) was to add the Australian race to the schedule.

The only way to accommodate that was to make it a non-points race because the IndyCar Series was contractually bound to have the season-finale at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 7. Moreover, IndyCar Series officials believe it is in the best interest of the series to crown its champion in the United States because it is based in this country.

Imagine crowning a champion halfway around the world in the Southern Hemisphere in a race that nobody would see on live television because it would be in the pre-dawn hours.

The biggest dilemma for the IndyCar Series, however, is the Gold Coast event is the Indianapolis 500 of Australia, where three-day attendance will likely exceed 300,000 fans.

Most of the IndyCar teams didn't want to go because even with the promoter picking up the travel expense, it will still cost teams to participate. Sponsors such as Target don't have stores in Australia, and the National Guard certainly isn't going to be signing up any recruits from "Down Under."

The IndyCar Series will get one of its highest sanctioning fees of the season (exceeding $3 million) from Australian race officials, who want this to become a regular event on IndyCar schedules for years to come.

IndyCar has a time slot on next year's schedule in September, which would tie-in with the Twin Ring Motegi trip in Japan, but Australian race officials have to stick to the October date because of other motorsports considerations in that country.

So this could be the IndyCar Series first and last trip to Surfer's Paradise. But consider the enormous effort just to get the cars and teams to Australia.

IndyCar Series teams headed to the Indianapolis International Airport on Oct. 14 to drop off cars and equipment to be loaded onto two 747 airplanes.

Nearly 500 Firestone Firehawk tires, 90 55-gallon drums of 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol and three Delphi Safety Team vehicles were trucked out to Los Angeles, where they were loaded onto a ship. The ship left port Sept. 17 and arrived in Sydney on Oct. 9.

At the airport in Indianapolis, two days before the 747s took off, John Dininger, coordinator of operations for the IndyCar Series, supervised the organized chaos as the parade of transporters arrived and a half-dozen forklifts moved crates.

Members of the 35-person crew on site looked over manifests before everything was weighed, stacked on rolling pallets, shrink-wrapped, covered with a weatherproof net and moved to a holding area ready to be loaded onto the plane. Each team is allowed 9,000 pounds of equipment in addition to its race cars. The 13 teams are taking 36 cars.

Once loaded with the 400,000 pounds of equipment, the two planes will fly from Indianapolis to Brisbane, with fuel stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu and Fiji.

"We arrive on Saturday [Oct. 18], and the teams arrive on [Oct. 22]," Dininger said last week. "We're on track Oct. 24, 25 and 26 and then we'll load it all up again and come home."

Make no doubt about it, the IndyCar Series will put on a great show and the Australian fans will love it, but in the big picture the best way to describe this race is "Much Adieu about Nothing."

"The economy is in a dire situation," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "It is pretty severe and there is a good chance it is going to continue to get worse, I don't see how it can not affect every corner and every piece of the puzzle. Everyone who drags a race car to the track knows you don't do it to make money and if you are lucky, you break even doing it.

"It is a severe issue for all of us as drivers, owners, every person walking in the garage needs to have a greater understanding of what their position is and a plan of action, I guess should we see the situation get even worse, which I think it possibly could. It doesn't look like there is any relief any time soon. It is difficult to say that the short tracks affected any less or any differently than any other part of the sport."

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the grim economy that is affecting not only NASCAR but the country as a whole.

"He'll lie to me on the pit box and say, "Oh, we're a tenth off" and we'll be a tenth ahead. The only way I find out is from my wife and Mr. Hendrick. Mr. Hendrick busts his butt all the time on that."

-- Jimmie Johnson on the "misleading" information he gets from his crew chief, Chad Knaus.

It's down to "Four to Go" as the Chase heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which has been the site of some of the closest and most exciting finishes in recent NASCAR history. What stands out about this weekend is the chance to actually see an exciting finish, in true AMS fashion, but most importantly, the end of another long season is near.

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