Bruce Martin
Sunday October 17th, 2010

CONCORD, N.C. -- Time is running out if anyone is going to stop Jimmie Johnson from winning his fifth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title. Only three drivers are within 100 points of Johnson at the halfway point of the Chase. And, as the series heads to its last short-track race of the season next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, for those who are just about out of contention, the focus changes to becoming the "spoiler."

That is the attitude Kyle Busch is now taking in the final five races of the season. He was leading with 21 laps to go Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway before Jamie McMurray passed him to post his third win of the season. Busch is fifth in the standings, 177 points behind Johnson and, while he is mathematically still alive to win the championship, he knows realistically that will not happen.

So, in Busch's mind, the plan is simple -- win the rest of the races on the schedule and make a statement.

"That is what our goal is, to go out there and win the rest of the races and to try to spoil it," Busch said. "Realistically, you're not going to beat however many are in front of me, unless they all have trouble at least once or twice. Realistically, that is why I said our championship hopes and dreams are lost. We can go out there and race for how we know how to race for, which is wins and to be competitive and to do the best we can. We see the championship hopes kind of diminishing, but we don't see the reason of not to race.

"We're going to go out there and race hard. We'll see what we can get. If we can get back up to fourth in points, third in points, second in points even -- that's great. I just don't foresee guys in front of us all having enough problems that gets us back into the running of this deal. It's going to take an awful lot of bad luck. One of those guys is our teammate. We don't want to wish any bad luck on any of our teammate with Denny (Hamlin) and him having to go out there and try to win this championship too."

A late season surge of victories by Busch would be something that could boost the sagging interest in NASCAR. Television ratings for the Chase are down from last year and track attendance continues to sag. And, while a sluggish economy is the reason NASCAR officials point to for the apathetic response of its once robust fan base, the issue runs deeper than that.

Johnson's historic run of championships puts the entire sport in the midst of greatness but that isn't generating the level of interest that his accomplishment deserves. Johnson is good -- too good -- in fact and he has left the rest of his competitors without an answer. And, as pointed out in last week's column, the Chase is loaded with Johnson's best tracks.

Hamlin is only 41 points behind Johnson and heads to one of Hamlin's best tracks where he has won three times, including the past two contests. But Martinsville is also one of Johnson's best as the four-time reigning champion has six wins at the .526-mile, paper-clip shaped short track. In the last eight Martinsville races, Johnson and Hamlin are the only drivers to win there.

Kevin Harvick is third, 77 points out of the lead, but to anybody who heard him on the team radio Saturday night, he was totally frustrated with his race car and implored his crew that "this isn't how to win a championship."

Jeff Gordon is fourth in the standings but, at 156 points out of first, has joined the ranks of the also-rans, unless something dramatic happens.

So that is why Busch has become important to generating interest in the Chase, not because of the championship, but because he can do the one thing racing is all about and that is win races.

"Certainly -- I would love to do that," Busch said. "I tell you what though -- the only guy that's capable of doing that is the 48 car. Week in and week out, they are the guys that can go out to every single race track and legitimately have a shot to win. If you look at us, we're legitimately a shot for the top 10. We could hit a top-five or so, but we're not running second, third, fourth, fifth the whole race and then at the end, circumstances go right and we win the race.

"That's what the 48 car does every single week. He's in the top five from the drop of the green flag until the checkered flag and if he can win it, he'll win it. I don't see anybody else that's even in that league. It's like me on the Nationwide side. Every single week, you know you can count on me either being first, second or third. That's what I count Jimmie Johnson as being unless you have trouble and I don't ever want to put trouble on people so you try to beat them out right and it's too hard to make up that much distance."

Busch admits he is dumbfounded every time he makes the Chase, he gets into a deep hole early that takes him out of contention. In 2008, he was by far the best driver over the first 26 races, only to falter in the first two contests. In 2009, he narrowly missed the 12-driver cut to fight it out for the championship over the final 10 races.

This year, Busch started off decently, only to have a two-race stretch that began with his controversial crash with David Reutimann at Kansas and a blown engine at California.

"I've kind of seen that, every year I've been in the Chase, something's happened," Busch said. "It's very, very, very frustrating and it's very disappointing too. You build your year in the first 26 races to make the Chase. You make the Chase and now you have a chance for the championship and boom, before you even get halfway in the Chase, you're already realistically knocked out. Not mathematically, but realistically knocked out. This is another one of those years. I'll have to bounce back as best as I can, I'm not giving up, but all we can do is what we can do on the race track. If I go out there and win the last six races and Jimmie Johnson finishes in the top 10 even in all those races, I won't beat him.

"There are not enough points there that I'm going to make up on him. It's going to be hard to do and it is very frustrating to that point, but that's racing sometimes I guess."

Busch is obviously disappointed he did not win at Charlotte, but heading to Martinsville he remains a legitimate "spoiler" -- a driver who can win races and bring the focus back to getting into victory lane, since it's all too apparent that Johnson is on his way to a fifth-straight title.

Even when Jimmie Johnson has bad luck, he is able to turn it into good fortune.

That was never more evident than at Charlotte on Lap 35, when he spun out of Turn 2, but did not make contact with any car or barrier. Although that dropped him back to 32nd place, he was back in the lead by Lap 189 and would go on to finish third, solidifying his grasp on the points lead. Once again, it makes Homestead a race he doesn't have to win in order to clinch the championship.

But, Johnson says, "Not so fast."

"Yeah, I just don't think that's the smart thing to do," Johnson said. "There is just so much racing left. Texas is a great example of what can happen. I think this championship is going to come down to Homestead and I feel that we've don't a really good job of being more competitive at Homestead. Last year, we ran in the top three or five most of the race with being smart on the race track. And we sat on the pole, too. So I feel that if push comes to shove, when we go to Homestead and we need to race for the win, we'll have what we need to there.

"The other tracks, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished and what we've done. But it doesn't mean a damn thing about this weekend's race or next weekend's race and on and on. You have to go out and like we always hear, you've got to go play the game. Well, I've got to go run the race and that's my job now."

There is no doubt Johnson is good, but NASCAR's top driver takes offense to those who blame him for the television rating decrease because his persona is too "vanilla."

"Well I know that I'm not the reason for those things and I sure as hell know I'm not vanilla," Johnson said. "I think it takes anybody some time to get comfortable in their shoes and their sport and with where I went from being like a C-level driver in Nationwide and through all the other things in my career, to drive for Hendrick Motorsports to having success early, at the end of the day I want to be a professional and do my job. And some people formed opinions then and it's unfortunate that if it still lingers around because I think I've done plenty to show that I'm far from vanilla.

"It's not me and I know that. So I just kind of chuckle about it and if people want to spend time talking about it they can."

Johnson is chuckling, all right -- he's laughing all the way to another championship celebration.

When Jeff Gordon drove his first NASCAR Cup race in the 1992 season finale, it was the final race for the legendary Richard Petty. On the track, there were some heated rivalries with many of the top drivers in the sport and, when Gordon started winning races in 1994 and championships in 1995, he was engaged in a rivalry with the great Dale Earnhardt.

Gordon believes one of the reasons for declining interest in NASCAR is the fact those feuds no longer exist.

"My only argument is rivalries," Gordon said. "I think there needs to be some more rivalries out there. When I won my first championship, obviously the rivalry with Earnhardt and even in the other championships I never really had the rivals like that, but there was always Ford versus or Chevy, or with Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett, or Bobby Labonte. I just think it's important to have rivalries.

"I don't think it's anything about Jimmie Johnson, it's just nobody has really rivaled him. The only one that has besides Carl [Edwards] I guess, I would have thought that that would have been pretty decent ratings that year, but Carl is probably just too nice. It's two nice guys going against each other, even though it's Ford vs. Chevy; I think there is a certain entertainment aspect to it that plays out and that just depends on the guys' personality and their fan base."

Gordon believes a fitting rivalry that would generate attention would be Kyle Busch and Johnson.

"I think it would spark a lot more interest," Gordon said. "I think that Kevin Harvick kind of plays that role a little bit and he's there. If that battle heats up, I think it could be interesting. I think right now anything that sparks a good battle with Jimmie, even if it's me I think will spark some things. Those guys have dominated so much that when we get to this position I think a lot of people just go, 'Oh man, he's going to do it again.' But, I also think they're waiting to see if somebody else can beat him."

In the last five seasons, nobody has been able to keep pace with Johnson, much less beat him. Until that happens, the lack of a rivalry will continue.

NASCAR will "go green" in 2011 when it adds 15 percent corn-based Ethanol to its fuel supplied by Sunoco in what is considered a good "first step" in addressing environmental concerns. But is that really far enough?

Consider that the IndyCar Series has used 100 percent fuel-grand Ethanol (98 percent ethanol, 2 percent gasoline in order to meet Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms restrictions) since 2007, the E15 fuel announced by NASCAR appears to be a modest change. But remember that until a few years ago, NASCAR still used leaded fuel. This is a major attitude change in a sport that still uses the carburetor while the rest of the world switched to fuel injection 30 years ago.

"What we know is from the testing that the fuel that we've chosen and the fuel that was ultimately developed by Sunoco is going to be cleaner burning," NASCAR CEO Brian France said. "From a performance standpoint, we're actually going to be better. I'm told the drivers will have a little more horsepower. But more importantly, is we take another step today. We take another step we're already the largest recycler in sports. This is the most visible thing that we can do to let our partners and our fans know that NASCAR is taking a slow, steady march as an industry. The tracks have been incredible partners in this endeavor.

"I think our view is one step at a time. We're comfortable with, obviously, with 15. Every division is different. Certainly the structured differently. So it's really one step at a time. We'll go from there."

According to NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton, the fuel blend has been tested during recent tire tests and the results have been positive. France indicated why the series is starting with E15 as a logical first step in going green with its fuel.

"There are some pretty big complications and difficulties to get the mixture just right, the formula just right for our style of racing and our demands that are out there for 500 miles or 600 miles," France said. "So we're very pleased so far with how the testing looked for 2011. When we said we had to accelerate our green efforts, this was a center piece. It's certainly the most visible thing we can do. It's also one of the more difficult things that we do.

"So I certainly have put us on a fast, but hopefully prudent track, too. We can't make mistakes in this area. This has to be a smooth transition. We're pretty confident that it will be just that."

According to Sunoco vice president of marketing Bob Owens, the company has purchased an ethanol manufacturing facility, which went into operation the second quarter of 2010, in Fulton, N.Y.

"I think this mix is right for NASCAR," Owen said. "This is a controlled racing environment. We've had a lot of discussions with NASCAR about what the proper mix was. I think NASCAR came to a sound decision here. I think it's really positive step for the sport. I think retail is a different issue, which we'll work our way through as things evolve."

The new fuel blend will have some environmental benefits, but officials believe that can't be quantified.

"We're not exactly certain of the carbon emission benefit, but there is a benefit," France said.

Ten years ago, NASCAR was sponsored by a cigarette company, cartons of smokes were given freely to media and for those of us who were non-smokers, we simply had to put up with all the second-hand smoke that filled media centers and press boxes. Now, NASCAR has become "green" and is attempting to become "bio-friendly."

How times have changed....

"It's kind of like a pin-ball. I haven't been through something like what Carl Edwards has been through, or certainly Rusty (Wallace) way back or things like that. The ones I've been in just seem like one big mass of cars just bouncing off one another and at that place, aerodynamics are so important that you're day is pretty much done with even minor damage. But you're running so close to one another that it just takes the slightest little bobble by one guy and 10, 12, or 15 cars are in it. And that's the part about Talladega that's not fun." -- Jeff Gordon on what it feels like to be in "The Big One" at Talladega.

"Yeah, 'A new car!' She won -- it was awesome! It was really cool experience. Drew Carey lost like 90 pounds, he walked by me the first time and I didn't even recognize him. I was like, 'where is Drew at?' He was right behind me. And by God he was. It was a cool experience. It's amazing how growing up that show just seems huge. It's always when you go to those sets and things; it's unbelievable how small they really are. They make it look so big on TV and yet it's just one studio and it's in and out and done within an hour. Very neat experience; I'm glad we got to do it. They do a great job of building excitement in the air. When those people come down, there it is completely random and I'm telling you what, they are wound up. Some of our PR people were in the stands and the first couple times you could tell that they were like with us. I was in the back watching the live feed and you could see them back there and everybody is hooting and hollering and they didn't quite know what to do. They were sitting there stone-faced and all of a sudden about two more people come and they are in it, man. A kid that works for me, Chip, he's back there '$750! $750!' She said '$901,' and he's like 'Nope! Nope!' She won and it was just a funny experience." -- Clint Bowyer, who appeared on the daytime game show, "The Price is Right" last week.

"We go to Martinsville next week? I swear I thought it was Talladega. I honestly thought it was Talladega. OK, I'd better get my stuff together. Fantastic." -- NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson admitting he thought the next race was at Talladega.

"It's painful. Yeah, it sucks, man. I think we are good enough to win, but it is so competitive that you have to put yourself in those positions and when you are in that position, you better make it stick. That is what so disappointing to me is that we have had four or five opportunities that we haven't pulled off. Just like we had those opportunities we since then haven't had those opportunities and you don't know when the next one is going to come." -- Jeff Gordon on the fact he has yet to win a race this season.

NASCAR fans get a chance to watch some "beatin' and bangin'" for the final time this season on the short tracks as NASCAR heads to Martinsville. If any of the top three drivers in the standings have any issues, it could give the Chase a much-needed shuffle before heading to Talladega in two weeks.

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