Which was why Sunday's win was especially gratifying to the 50-year old Martin. With two laps to go in the LifeLock 400, he was in third place. Then
In fact, it was Martin's position in the standings that enabled him to reach Victory Lane. While Johnson and Biffle raced each other hard and, in the process, burned valuable fuel, Martin eased off the throttle and spent the last 30 laps of the race trying to conserve fuel. It worked.
Martin is now tied with
It's almost as if he toys with them, the way that Johnson can overpower the field seemingly whenever it strikes his fancy. How good was he on Sunday? He led 146 of 200 laps. By lap 25, he already had a five second lead. Even though a Chevy driver had only won once in the last 15 Cup races at Michigan, Johnson had this race in the bag pretty much after the fifth lap.
Ok, so he didn't win. He ran out of gas on the penultimate lap and finished 22nd, but that was almost beside the point. Before his tank went dry, Johnson's lowest running position all day was third.
Here's what should be most concerning about Johnson's performance to the rest of the garage: Johnson, as he's done for the last three years, is performing his best this season on tracks that are either in the Chase or possess similar characteristics to venues that are in the Chase. Michigan is nearly a carbon copy of California Speedway, which is Chase race No. 4. Three weeks ago Johnson won at Dover, which is Chase race No. 2. And earlier this year he won at Martinsville (Chase race No. 6), finished second at Texas (Chase race No. 8), and wound up fourth in Phoenix (Chase race No. 9). In other words, Johnson is still very, very much the man to beat for the championship. And as of right now, Johnson and his No. 48 team have every reason to be feeling like a fourth-straight title is theirs to lose.
I had a lengthy chat with Junior on Friday afternoon inside his No. 88 hauler, discussing numerous subjects for an upcoming feature in the magazine. What struck me was how upbeat he was. Even when we talked about his well-publicized struggles this year, Earnhardt was adamant that his team had turned a corner, that its slowest days were behind them. His reason for optimism? The speed with which he has clicked with his new crew chief
"I'm feeling more and more comfortable in the car," Earnhardt said. "There wasn't one problem we were having before, it was a bunch of little things. But we're getting those worked out and things are finally starting to look up."
On Saturday at Michigan, Little E was second on the speed chart during final practice. Then, after starting 30th on Sunday, he calmly worked his way up through the field and by the midway point he was in the top 10. He finished 14th and climbed from 20th to 18th in the standings. Can he make the Chase? Well, Junior has 11 races to crack the top 12. As
This weekend word spread through the garage that GM has decided to cut back on its support of the Nationwide and truck series next season. What about the Cup series? Nothing definitive has been announced, but it stands to reason that GM, as part of its restructuring and belt-tightening, will also reduce the amount of money it spends to support its Cup teams.
How will this effect the on-track performance of the GM-backed teams such as Hendrick Motorsports next season? Very little, I think, especially given that all of the manufactures are reducing their motor sports outlays. Toyota has cut its NASCAR spending by about 20 percent and Ford has done roughly the same. Obviously, these are tough times for car companies, but in the end, I don't think this will have a dramatic impact on the competitive balance of the Cup series. But stay tuned. This will be a key storyline in 2010.
Just a hunch. I'll be writing more about this later this week.