Friday October 16th, 2009

Here are five drivers to watch on Saturday night in Charlotte in race No. 5 of the Chase:

It already looks like this will be Johnson's race to lose. Lowe's Motor Speedway is one of Johnson's favorite tracks on the circuit, and it shows. He's won at Lowe's five times in 16 career starts and on Thursday he captured the pole. If JJ takes the checkers, he'll extend his lead in the standings and be closer to an unprecedented fourth straight championship.

This team isn't perfect, however. It has had more problems than usual on pit road this year, which cost Johnson a few wins during the regular season. Even last week at Fontana, where Johnson won, he lost spots on pit road. Still, if his crew is merely serviceable on Saturday night, you can pencil in a top-five run for Johnson -- and probably a win.

Despite finishing fourth last week, Martin lost the points lead to Johnson, whom he now trails by 12 points. But many drivers -- including Brian Vickers -- will tell you that Martin, not Johnson, is the one to watch over these next few weeks.

Martin has long been considered the top driver in NASCAR on 1.5-mile tracks like Charlotte. This has helped Johnson and Jeff Gordon, as Martin counsels his teammates during post practice debriefing sessions on best lines to get around the track and what he feels behind the wheel in different setups. Martin's feedback has been so valuable that Gordon swears he's the reason why he no longer struggles on 1.5-mile tracks.

Expect Martin to use this knowledge to rip off another top-five finish at Lowe's. He should be very fast on Saturday night when he starts on the front row next to Johnson.

Montoya has easily been the biggest surprise of the Chase. He's the only driver who's had four top-five finishes and his average finish of 3.5 trumps Johnson (3.75). But it still appears that Montoya simply doesn't have enough speed in his car to challenge for wins. Will that change on Saturday? Well, Montoya will be driving the same car that he piloted to a fourth-place finish at Kansas two weeks ago.

For Montoya, the way to win the championship is obvious: keep recording top-fives and hope that Johnson and Martin suffer bad luck -- like cutting a tire or getting caught up in an accident -- that leads to some bad finishes. This is essentially how Kurt Busch won the title in 2004, and it's likely the only way Montoya will have a shot at it this year.

Stewart is still in title contention -- barely. After finishing fifth at Fontana last weekend, he trails Johnson by 84 points. He needs to bridge this gap on Saturday to have a legitimate shot at catching Johnson.

Stewart has fond memories of Charlotte; it's where he raced to his first win as a driver-owner last May in the All-Star Race. "I don't know that I would change a thing so far to this point," he said. "It's been a pretty smooth ride for the first 32 races of the year. I'm like a proud father of our organization."

If Stewart can finish in the top three on Saturday, he'll be in good shape. The next two tracks on the schedule -- Martinsville and Talladega -- are two of his best. So if Johnson does slip up in these next three races, Stewart, the regular-season champ, should be poised to make a move.

Gordon is in a similar position as Stewart. He's 105 points behind Johnson and simply can't afford to fall much further back and still have a shot at the title. Still, Gordon has been strong the past three weeks. In fact, his average finish over the past three races (3.3) is the best in the sport. What's really hurting him is his 15th-place finish at Loudon in the Chase opener. "We're optimistic about the weekend and building on the momentum of the last two second-place finishes," said Gordon. "To compete for this championship, we've got to keep that up and then some. We understand what we're up against, not only our teammates, but Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart and also the 15th-place finish that we had at New Hampshire."

Gordon has reason to be optimistic because this team has flourished on intermediate tracks this season. But so has Johnson. If Gordon is going to win the championship, at some point he's going to have to outrun Johnson at a place where JJ dominates.

So far, that hasn't happened. And it probably won't on Saturday.

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