Monday November 9th, 2009

Five things we learned on a championship-changing afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. Mark Martin is still alive in the title hunt. Heading into Sunday's race, Jimmie Johnson only needed a top-10 finish in each of the last three Chase events to cruise to the Sprint Cup Championship, even if Mark Martin won out and lead the most laps in every race. Considering the ruthless dominance that Johnson has flashed during this Chase, this seemed as easy for Johnson as flipping his ignition switch. But then, in a heartbeat, everything changed -- for Johnson, for Martin, and for NASCAR.

On the third lap on Sunday, Johnson was minding his own business when Sam Hornish momentarily lost control of his car. To his defense, Hornish, who has had control issues all season long, was nudged from behind by David Reutimann, which caused him to become loose. Hornish slid up the track and into the hard-charging Johnson, who was in the process of passing Hornish on the high side. Johnson ended up careening into the outside wall, bounced off it, and got hit again by Hornish before slamming into the inside wall. The car was virtually totaled, but Johnson was able to drive it to the garage for repairs.

After more than an hour in the garage, Johnson returned to the track, puttered around for the rest of the afternoon, gained a few spots on cars that fizzled out and ended their days in the garage, and finished 38th. He ended up losing 101 points in the standings and now holds a 77-point lead over Martin, who finished fourth, with two races to go.

Make no mistake: This is still Johnson's championship to lose. The 77-point lead is the second highest any Chase champ has held with two races to go. And no Chase driver who's been atop the standings at this point of the season has ever lost the championship. Let's review:

In 2004, the first year of the Chase format, Kurt Busch held a 41-point lead with two to go and won; in 2005 Tony Stewart had a 38-point lead at this point and wound up hoisting the Cup; in 2006 Johnson was up 17 points with two left and won; in 2007 he had a 30-point lead at this point and won, and last year he was up 106 points after Texas. In other words, history is on Johnson's side.

Still, Martin isn't out of it. Why? Because...

2. Martin did just enough on Sunday. Martin didn't have the fastest car at Texas, but he managed to eeek out a fourth-place finish as several cars in front of him ran out of gas late. Martin didn't take full advantage of Johnson's crash, but he certainly didn't pull a Jeff Gordon either.

Gordon is no doubt kicking himself today because of the opportunity he missed at Texas. "I'm just terrible at this place," Gordon said before he left the track. He finished 13th and trails Johnson by 112 points, meaning he's gunning for second place rather than the big prize.

But Martin still has a realistic shot at the title. Why? Because the schedule sets up better for him than it does for Johnson. Martin has been the top driver on flat tracks this season. The next race is at Phoenix, a flat track where Martin led the most laps and won at in the spring. Yes, Johnson won the previous three races at Phoenix, but Martin should have the edge on Sunday based on the notes from the spring that his crew chief Alan Gustafson will lean on.

Martin also should have the edge, at least on paper, over Johnson at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of the season-finale. Martin has long been considered the top racer on the circuit at intermediate length tracks. "He might be the best there's ever been [on intermediates]," owner Rick Hendrick told me earlier this season. Homestead is a 1.5-mile intermediate. Martin even has a better career average finish at Homestead (12.0 to 13.6) than Johnson.

Does this mean that Martin will catch Johnson? It won't be easy, but for the first time in a few weeks, we actually have a battle for the championship, which is good for NASCAR because...

3. NASCAR needs Homestead to matter. It's hardly breaking any news to report that TV ratings and attendance are down for NASCAR this season. What can shake NASCAR out of its doldrums? Well, aside from Danica Patrick coming to the sport (more on that in a moment), a riveting, down-to-the-wire championship sprint would be the kind of compelling theatre this sport needs right now.

And what a story it would be if Martin, the most hard-luck driver in NASCAR history, who has finished runnerup in the final standings a record four times, could mount the greatest comeback in Cup history to topple the greatest driver of his generation. Not saying it's going to happen, but if it did, it would go down as one of the most momentous and unlikely accomplishments in the history of the sport.

4. All signs point to Danica coming to NASCAR next year for a few races. Though nothing has been signed yet, sources continue to indicate that Patrick is close to joining JR Motorsports next year for a handful of ARCA and Nationwide races, as reported by SI.com on Oct. 4. She'd make her debut for the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick at Daytona in February, and would run in the both the ARCA event and the Nationwide race in the days before the season-opening 500. If it happens, this news would trump anything that happens in the Great American Race. Stay tuned.

5. Martin is going to win Sunday at Phoenix. Aside from the reasons listed above, Martin has one thing right now that Johnson doesn't: Momentum. As in stick-and-ball sports, momentum is an enormous factor in motor sports, one that should never be overlooked. To read more about why Martin is going to take the checkers in the desert, check back on Friday.

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