Bruce Martin
Monday September 28th, 2009

He may not be the points leader, but after wasting the competition in Sunday's race at Dover, Jimmie Johnson may be ready to say "Game Over" in this year's Chase for the Championship.

Johnson's victory leaves him just 10 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, who finished second in the grueling 400-lap contest on the concrete at Dover. But as the series heads to next Sunday's 400-mile battle at Kansas Speedway, Johnson is that race's defending champion and may be ready to take firm control of the points race as he attempts to make NASCAR history.

If Johnson wins the championship this season, he would be the first driver ever to win four straight NASCAR Cup titles. In each of his three previous championship seasons, Johnson took control earlier and earlier. Lurking just 10 points out of the lead after the second race, Johnson may be ready to dictate the agenda for the remaining eight races.

Just take a look at the tracks left on the schedule and how Johnson has performed:

• He started on the pole and led 124 laps to win at Kansas last year. It was his first win at the 1.5-mile track, where Johnson has two top-five and five top-10 finishes in seven previous starts.

• Johnson has three wins at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., but this track is new to the Chase schedule this year after swapping dates with Atlanta, then moving to an early October date that was previously held by Talladega. Johnson has won this race the past two years. His other win came the first time he raced at Fontana, in 2002. Those three wins are part of his eight top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 13 starts at this track.

• Johnson has a stunning five wins at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte but hasn't won there since October 2005. That was the end of his four-race winning streak at the 1.5-mile track located in the heart of NASCAR country. He drove to victory in the 2003 Coca-Cola 600 then started his streak with wins in May 2004 continuing to October 2005. Those five victories are part of his eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 16 starts at Lowe's.

• Johnson has a whopping six victories at Martinsville Speedway, including the past two races at the Virginia short track. He had a three-race winning streak at Martinsville from October 2006 to October 2007. He also won the fall race in 2004 but that contest is forever tarnished as the day 10 members of the Hendrick family and race team were killed in a private plane crash as they were heading to that race. Johnson's six wins are part of his 11 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 15 Martinsville starts.

• Johnson only has one win at Talladega Superspeedway. In fact, this is his weakest of the remaining eight tracks in The Chase. His lone victory came in May 2006. He has four top-five and six top-10 finishes in 15 Talladega starts. This could be the one track where his competition can gain an advantage on the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet.

• He has one win, six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Texas Motor Speedway. His victory in the 2007 November race allowed him to pull away from teammate Jeff Gordon in that year's Chase.

• Johnson is a three-time winner at Phoenix and has won the Chase race the past two years. His three victories all came in a row, and he finished fourth at PIR in April. Those three wins are part of his seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 12 Phoenix starts.

• Homestead is the only track where Johnson has never won, but the past three years he hasn't needed to win the race to win The Chase. Johnson has gone into conservation mode the past three years with finishes of ninth, seventh and 15th -- all good enough to clinch the title. He has two top-five and five top-10 finishes in eight Homestead starts.

OK, get the point?

Past history is in Johnson's favor, and with some of his best tracks coming up, he could be well on his way to a fourth-straight Sprint Cup title.

"I certainly hope that our performance today scares some people and affects them in a way that benefits us," Johnson said. "But I see guys get so worried about what other people think, what other people say and spend a lot of time in those areas. That's not what works for me.

"I tried to play some of those games in 2005 with Tony Stewart. It didn't work out for me. Since that day I realized I just need to run my race, put blinders on. Don't watch television. Don't watch or read any of the trade papers, magazines. Just ignore, ignore, ignore, and focus on my world and what's going on with my race car.

"That's what I'll do through the rest of The Chase."

Of course, his fellow Chase competitors aren't going to give up. There is still the sentimental favorite in Martin, who is attempting to win his first Cup title at 50 years old. As points leader, he's expected to put up quite a fight.

"It's just two races," Martin said after finishing second. "I think a first and the second is a pretty good way to come out of the gate. But we've got eight more to go, and all kinds of things can happen.

"I still say that there's 12 in it, and 12 can win. It might be a challenge for a couple of the teams that are toward the back right now. But you just don't have any concept of how much racing eight races is. It's a lot of racing. A lot of things can happen."

Now that Danica Patrick has signed a three-year extension with Andretti Green Racing, the question is how much racing team owner Michael Andretti will let her do outside of IndyCar.

Don't expect an exhaustive schedule of ARCA, Camping World Truck Series or Nationwide Series races based around the IndyCar Series schedule. Andretti wants his high-paid driver to focus on what he signed her to do -- try to become the first female driver to win the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series title. So when Patrick finds a NASCAR partner -- my pick is she follows the GoDaddy.com money to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports in a select number of Nationwide races -- look for her to run in fewer than 10 stock car events next season. In fact, five races next season would probably be a nice, logical step for her before she attempts to increase that schedule in 2011, if she likes the progress she is making.

That Patrick signed a three-year contract extension with AGR is also important because the third year shows a true commitment to succeed in the IndyCar Series before making the next step.

I wrote in April that after a long, contract search she would stay with Andretti Green Racing. The basis for that prediction: Only two teams in IndyCar (Team Penske and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing) could have given her a better chance of winning. And neither racing team has any current openings.

Chip Ganassi's team listened to IMG's sales pitch, but with Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti providing the most formidable one-two punch in IndyCar, it was not willing to add a third car. And team owner Roger Penske never really showed any interest in Patrick because he has three drivers -- Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power -- to fill two full-time cars.

As far as going to NASCAR, none of the prominent teams were going to put her in a car until she proved herself as a stock-car racer. And while there may have been a few Cup teams that would have signed her just for the sponsorship and publicity opportunities, Patrick realized the "Danica Brand" would have gone stale if not packaged properly with a team that can give her competitive equipment.

So in the end, Patrick made the wise choice by staying in a series where she is still a star, whether she wins races or not.

Make that the "Crash of the Month," as rookie drive Joey Logano survived a spectacular -- if not frightening -- crash in Sunday's NASCAR race at Dover when his car barrel-rolled 7 1/2 times before coming to a stop. Logano had to get on the brakes to keep from hitting Bobby Labonte but when he checked up, Tony Stewart inadvertently ran into the back of Logano's Toyota, sending it on its flight.

"It was the wildest ride I've ever been on," Logano said after he was checked and released from the infield care center. "You can't go on a rollercoaster worse than that. I'm just still shaking, that's all, but I'm fine. I'm not even sore, which is really surprising after all that. I'm just happy to land on my wheels. When I was on my side that was when I was getting worried for a minute. The good Lord was with me on that one."

The race was red-flagged to clean up the mess and Stewart was distraught for his role in Logano's crash as he communicated over his team's radio.

"I've never felt sicker in my life than when we hit Joey like that; we hit him a ton," Stewart said after the race. "I didn't see it coming -- that was the worst part. He had to check up, something happened in front of him to make him have to do that, and I don't know what it was. When he did, we drilled him in a spot where we were supposed to be wide-open on the race track. You could tell something made him check-up first. You just can't see through the cars."

Stewart was able to finish ninth after the crash put him back to 33rd place.

As for the 19-year-old Logano, he's got a story his teenage buddies can't match.

(The "Look, up in the sky; it's a bird, it's a plane" Edition)

"I'm pretty sure that dude is Superman. I have had the opportunity to see up close. I'm telling you, I see why he is so successful. I see why. He works harder at it than anybody else, I think, on the circuit." -- Mark Martin on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

(The "I'd Rather be Second" Edition)

"I'm really disappointed. I feel like we had a second-place car and when you have a second-place car you've got to finish second or contend for the win. We had a problem with a gun on pit road and I don't know what you do about that but we'll try to fix it for the next time. It's just nice to run good. The No. 48 was in a league of their own but I felt like we were second best." -- Jeff Gordon after finishing sixth at Dover.

After a weekend at home for the first time since February, it's back on the road -- make that the "Yellow Brick Road" -- as I head to Kansas Speedway for the third race in the Chase. I can smell the barbecue pits at Arthur Bryant's and Gates Barbecue already, as Jimmie Johnson looks to turn up the heat on his Chase competitors at a track where he is the defending champion.

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