Friday March 26th, 2010

You heard it all the way back in Speedweeks, when drivers, crew chiefs and owners at Daytona were mapping out their plans for 2010. There would be two regular seasons this year in the Sprint Cup series. The first would be a five-race stretch that started with the Daytona 500 and ended last week at Bristol. The second would start this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, where for the first time since 2007, NASCAR is replacing the rear wing on the cars with a spoiler, giving the stock cars a more traditional look.

Clearly, Jimmie Johnson dominated the first part of the 2010 regular season. He won three of the five races, even though he didn't always have the best car in a race. But because of luck (see California Speedway), shrewd calls in the pits by crew chief Chad Knaus (see Las Vegas Motor Speedway), and smart driving by Johnson (see Bristol Motor Speedway), the No. 48 team is right back where it's been for the past four years -- on top of the sport.

But how will getting rid of the wing affect Johnson, who won 22 of the 98 races with the additional hardware? Probably not very much. Just listen to his teammate Jeff Gordon, who spoke to the media during a two-day test session of the spoiler at Charlotte Motor Speedway this week. "Wins come from great teams," Gordon said. "Jimmie and Chad ... are such a good team that they win because they keep themselves in position and Chad makes good calls. Jimmie really gets after it when he needs to. And that's just a sign of a great combination. I don't think that's going to change whether you put a wing on there."

One team, though, particularly impressed during the test at Charlotte: Richard Childress Racing. RCR's Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick consistently posted speeds either at or near the top of the speed chart. Overall, speeds were down from last year, but this is by design. The spoiler causes more rear drag down the straightaways, but it also gives the cars more rear downforce, which, in theory, should make the cars easier to handle in traffic. For the last three years drivers have almost universally complained that it felt like they were driving on ice whenever they encountered traffic, making drivers less likely to attempt a daring pass, which in turn produced some lackluster races. Will the spoiler change this?

"The car feels stable," said Kurt Busch during the Charlotte test. "We're just really trying to dissect the car and find little things that are going to make positive changes and build our notebook up."

As I wrote in the magazine this week, Busch has quickly emerged this season as one of top contenders to dethrone Johnson. He had a better car than Johnson at Bristol last week, leading a race-high 278 laps, but he got snookered by Johnson on the final restart and wound up third. Busch was so irate when he got out of his car that he punched his No. 2 Dodge, hurled a bottle inside the cockpit and let loose a profanity-laced tirade. I've seen drivers upset before when they've been beaten by Johnson, but never like this. Busch may as well be acting out for the entire garage, though, because the level of Jimmie fatigue within the sport is as high as it's ever been.

On the bright side for Busch, he probably won't feel the sting of narrowly losing to Johnson at Martinsville, because the paper clip-shaped short track is one of Busch's worst and -- you guessed it -- one of Johnson's best. In fact, if Johnson doesn't win on Sunday, it would be a major upset.

The numbers are staggering. In 16 career starts at Martinsville, Johnson has led an astounding 1,551 laps and won six times, including five of the last seven. He's also won over $2 million in his career at Martinsville alone.

Can anyone stay close to Johnson on Sunday? Well, Denny Hamlin has traditionally been fast at Martinsville, which he considers his home track, but Hamlin has been underwhelming thus far in 2010, failing to finish in the top 10 in any event. Hamlin won the fall race here last year, but based on how slow he's been all season, don't expect him to put too much of a fight once the engines fire.

The one driver to keep an eye on is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Little E has quietly authored a solid season. He's climbed to eighth in points and, despite a few pit road speeding sanctions, has been savvy behind the wheel. He's also meshing nicely with crew chief Lance McGrew, who's in his first full season with Earnhardt, and the No. 88 team just has the feel of a team that is on the brink of a breakthrough and taking a checkered flag.

There's also this: Martinsville is one of Earnhardt's best tracks on the circuit. In 20 career starts at the short track, Little E has eight top-five finishes. On Sunday he'll be driving a brand new car that McGrew spent months building for this event.

So who wins on Sunday? I think the second part of the regular season will start the same way the first portion ended: with Johnson reaching Victory Lane. Until proven otherwise, he's still the man to beat at Martinsville -- and virtually every other track on the Sprint Cup schedule.

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