Johnson, Hamlin primed to deliver epic Chase finish to NASCAR
At the very least they are creating the most intriguing of the seven installments of NASCAR's format for determining the Sprint Cup champion. With four weeks remaining in the season and just six points between them, they have created the possibility of a true ultimate, decisive final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which would, of course, be a boon for Ford, which sponsors the entire weekend, and could use a little help from the Chevrolet-driving Johnson and Toyota-powered Hamlin.
And then there's
Here are five things we learned after Martinsville:
Johnson has seen enough as the only driver to compete in all seven Chases not to make more vague checklists. He was just hoping to continue a late-summer swell, pile top-5 finishes high and reap the experience of becoming the playoff format's undisputed master.
His and Hamlin's separate ambitions and expectations intersected at NASCAR's shortest track on Sunday, where they had combined to win the last eight races -- the last two by Hamlin. Both got what they wanted. But it felt like a win for Hamlin, who roared from sixth on a final pit stop to win his seventh race of the season while Johnson lost two positions on a long final run as his No. 48 Chevrolet faded.
Ultimately, Johnson lasts one more week as the points leader, albeit 35 points less after finishing fifth. He'll enter the fourth-to-last race at Talladega next week with a slender lead over Hamlin. Amid it all, Johnson and Hamlin are forging what is shaping into the most dramatic points finish in Chase history. The smallest previous margin between the leader and runner-up at this point had been
"Obviously, we'd love to have a huge lead right now," he said. "I think, given how I raced and things like that over the course of this Chase so far, this is about the best-case scenario for us.
"I like being behind and chasing a guy. I do not like playing defense at all. So, I mean, to come here and play offense all day, going through adversity to get this win, it's a huge boost going forward. Right now I feel like we're in a great position going to Talladega, where, who knows, we could both finish 41, 42, or opposite spectrums. Nobody knows once we go next week. I know we've been extremely strong at Talladega for the last two to three years. So I'm pretty confident."
Hamlin admitted that a poor finish on Sunday would have been devastating.
"Had we lost points to him here, probably would have been a big blow as far as my confidence going forward," he said, "because obviously this is probably my best racetrack. It's his best racetrack. I feel like I have been better than him in the last couple years."
Johnson said he hadn't yet reached his point in the Chase where he begins to dwell on points totals. That doesn't happen until the Chase departs Talladega, he said. The Talladega race had already been run when Stewart left Martinsville in 2005, with the more staid Atlanta, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead remaining.
"[Forty-one points is] not a huge amount," Johnson said. "You hate to see it vanish. I'm really trying to not be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega. So much can happen at Talladega. Last year, Mark [Martin was] right there with me on the points, I'm running sixth on the track, he's running seventh coming to the checkered flag, his car gets hit, he gets hit, he is upside down. I'm just one spot ahead of him. I finish the race, get a bunch of points."
Johnson, who with spotter
"There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him. And every time it's a conflict he is involved," said Burton, who led five times for a race-high 134 laps and finished ninth. "And you would think over the amount of years that he has done it, that he would get the hint that he is always in the middle of it and maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he would be okay. I'm not out to harm him. I am a teammate of his and I am trying to help him and there comes a point where he needs to just catch his breath and realize that it's my racetrack too. And I didn't do anything wrong. If he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can't race and there is nothing that I did that I regret and there is nothing I won't do next week."