Johnson can all but lock up fourth straight Cup at Talledega

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KOONTZ LAKE, Indiana -- There's an old legend that Talladega Superspeedway has been cursed because it is built near a Native American burial ground. Since the 2.66-mile track opened in 1969, its races have been grim, dark spectacles where disaster and calamity lurk on nearly every lap.

Case in point was the finish of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in April when Carl Edwards' Ford went airborne while heading for the checkered flag before ripping down the fence as Brad Keselowski went on to win the race. Several spectators were injured from debris as Edwards' car nearly went into the grandstands.

This past week, Talladega Superspeedway officials decided to "lift the curse" by bringing out Creek Medicine Man Robert Thrower, who performed a traditional Native American blessing ceremony today on the start-finish line and asked for balance to be restored to the land.

"Most everything in Native American belief is about keeping balance," Thrower said at the ceremony. "Sometimes people and places can get out of balance and that unbalance may be perceived as something bad. What we did today was bless the track and ask for reconciliation so that balance can be restored. "

With four races left in the Chase and Jimmie Johnson leading the standings by 118 points, maybe NASCAR should have hired a witch doctor so balance could be restored to the standings.

Next Sunday's race on Halloween weekend could be the last, best chance for the rest of the drivers in the Chase to find a way to stop Johnson's quest for a record fourth straight championship. Talladega can often spell disaster for a driver, and it doesn't have to be in the form of getting sucked up into "the Big One" -- the term used for the massive, multi-car pileups that have been a trademark of this track.

A driver can go from first place to 20th in one lap just by getting shuffled out of the draft -- and that is the one thing that could cost Johnson points.

For instance, if Mark Martin were able to win the race and Johnson finish 15th, the Chase would tighten dramatically. But if Johnson survives Talladega's mayhem with a victory, or even a top-five finish, the engravers could start etching his name on the 2009 Sprint Cup trophy.

While drivers don't wish disaster upon Johnson, it might be fair to say that they are hoping a few Halloween gremlins to possess the No. 48 Chevrolet at Talladega.

"That is what everybody in the whole series is thinking right now," said Darien Grubb, the crew chief for Tony Stewart. "He has got that dominant performance going and he is out there pulling away from everybody. You have a good strong run and you still lose points. That is a hard day to swallow.

"You never wish bad luck on any of your competitors or any of your friends or anyone out there, but you have to go out there and perform to the best of your ability and hope to capitalize if they do have a bad day. Just whatever happens, you have to be the one to win the race and get the most points. Not only Talladega, but every track is that way. You never know what is going to happen. We are on the same Hendrick chassis and engine program as (Johnson's team). We really hope we are going to go down there and win the race and see what happens from there."

Come to think of it, with as many creatures that inhabit the Talladega infield; imagine the atmosphere that will exist on Halloween Night -- the night before Sunday's race.

Now, that's downright scary.

As for Johnson, his points lead is impressive, but he still doesn't consider himself a lock for his fourth straight title.

"I'm so tired of answering this question," Johnson snapped after Sunday's second-place finish at Martinsville. "I think you guys can all figure it out. Talladega, there's no telling, and I feel good with the other tracks after that as long as we don't have any (mechanical failures).

"The mechanicals, the stuff we can't control, is the stuff I'm worried about. The stuff we can control, I feel we're going to be great. Four good tracks coming up for us. If we have no issues, I feel that we can race for this championship and things will turn out as we want. But the stuff I can't control, I know it gives everybody something to talk about, but I'm tired of talking about all the what-ifs, and I'd just rather not."

Johnson's teammate and closest pursuer, Mark Martin, believes Talladega will play a key role in determining the outcome of this year's championship.

"It's really going to require Talladega to clean it out and shuffle it; see if it shuffles," Martin said. "I have a feeling that I'm going to have a great Talladega race. I don't know if our competition will or not. But I wrecked on lap 5 last time there. I've got a feeling that this just isn't going to happen this time.

"The law of averages is going to get you sooner or later and I think I've got some good karma going in there so I'm very optimistic. It could be a great equalizer."

Some in the media like to refer to Talladega as a wild card, but that couldn't be a more misused term. A wild card is to a driver's benefit, not detriment.

If anything, Talladega is the joker in NASCAR's deck -- the one card nobody wants to draw.

And Martin would love to find a way to stack the deck against Johnson so that he can make up some serious ground in the Chase.

"To me it's my opportunity to really get back into the running for it," Martin said. "So I plan on going there and driving like I know I am not going to wreck. And last time I went there I was concerned about it because we didn't need to, and we were struggling to get from the bottom of the barrel to the Chase and we got in a wreck on lap 5. I wasn't mad when it was over with. It just happens and that is how I will leave Talladega this time.

"If we wreck, then I am not going to worry about it. And if we win, we might ... we just might. So we are going to go there and just see how it turns out."

Juan Pablo Montoya is a newcomer to NASCAR's championship battle, although he won the CART championship in 1999 and was a contender for the World Championship when he raced in Formula One.

In Montoya's mind, Johnson must appear as the Southern California version of Michael Schumacher -- the Formula One great who dominated the series throughout the late 1990s and into much of this decade.

Montoya knows that Johnson has to have some misfortune in order for another driver to have a chance in the championship.

"The way he's running, you've probably got to win the next five races and he's got to have some bad luck," Montoya said.

The common thread is that unless Johnson has some bad luck; there is little that can keep him from winning a record fourth-straight title. And if that happens, then maybe the Creek Medicine Man will be needed to restore some balance to NASCAR's competition.

There must be something about racing in the Commonwealth for Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who dominated Sunday's race at Martinsville for his second straight win in his home state. Hamlin, who hails from the Chesterfield, Va., also dominated and won last month's race at Richmond International Raceway.

Sunday's win was also Hamlin's second Cup victory at Martinsville Speedway.

"It's a feel-good win for us because obviously after two bad weeks, to be able to rebound and finally get the win ... that's gratifying," Hamlin said. "And then also getting more wins this year, getting over that one- or two-win barrier where we've been the last couple years, that's also gratifying.

"You've got to be happy, a win is a win no matter when it is in the season, so we set our goals before this race, and we're already on track. We've got to be pleased at least where we're at right now."

The races preceding Martinsville have been a series of disappointments for Hamlin, who has been involved in wrecks and mechanical failures that have turned his Chase into a crawl.

But through it all, Hamlin remained confident in his team and his ability.

"We don't have any weak spots anymore in our race team, and I feel like that's how I figured I could say that I knew we were going to win another race regardless," Hamlin said. "Even last week after our troubles, I said, we're going to win another race, because every single week, whether it is a superspeedway, a short track or intermediate (track), we can win.

"Obviously when you put yourself in position like we have over the last few weeks, you're going to win races. It's just great to have that feeling, to go to a race track and know that you can win no matter what type of race track that you're on. I just had a lot of confidence in the team, and I knew if we just got past a few hurdles here and there, had some good stops at the end of the races, then we would win.

"Obviously it came true."

Hamlin entered the Chase as one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR at that point in the season. But once again, it was the early stages of NASCAR's 10-race Chase that doomed Hamlin from serious championship contention.

Hamlin is hoping a strong finish can prove that this team has the talent and potential to contend for championships in the future.

"It feels great to get three wins this season -- more than we've had in any other season," Hamlin said. "This is the best we've been. It's just a shame our Chase has gone so bad."

Great Britain can celebrate the Formula One World Championship for the second year in a row after Jenson Button clinched the 2009 title last week in Brazil. This on the heels of the 2008 championship, when fellow Briton Lewis Hamilton gave England the title and made history becoming the first driver of African descent to win the world title.

It's the first time that Great Britain has had back-to-back World Champions since England's Graham Hill in 1968 and Scotland's Jackie Stewart in 1969. Prior to that, Great Britain had four straight World Champions beginning in 1962 with Hill, followed by Scotland's Jim Clark in '63. John Surtees in '64 and Clark again in '65.

After Hill and Stewart went back-to-back in 1968-69, Stewart would win again in 1971 and 1973. Great Britain's James Hunt won the championship in 1976, but that would be the beginning of a 15-year drought for the British that didn't end until Nigel Mansell won the title in 1992. Damon Hill, the son of Graham Hill, returned the Union Jack to glory with the title in 1996 before another 12-year dry spell that ended with Hamilton's championship in 2008.

What made Button's championship so interesting is how dominant he was at the beginning for the season for Brawn F1 before a midseason slump nearly cost him the crown. And Button's prominence came when Hamilton and McLaren proved to be a major disappointment just one year after winning a title.

Great Britain is the home of the Formula One universe much the same way that North Carolina is the base to most NASCAR teams, and that Indianapolis is home to most of the top IndyCar teams.

So, F1 fans in England are able to tip a pint of ale to the Queen in honor of Button joining some of the legendary British names of Formula One World Champions.

Speaking of drivers that Great Britain can celebrate, Dario Franchitti of Edinburgh, Scotland gave Great Britain another source of pride after clinching his second IndyCar Series championship two weeks ago. Franchitti also won the 2007 Indianapolis 500, putting him in the category of his racing heroes Jim Clark and Graham Hill.

But mention him in that category and Franchitti appears somewhat awestruck.

"Those guys are legends," Franchitti said. "I'm just a guy lucky enough to drive IndyCars. I can't even think about being in the same group with them. Those guys are my heroes.

Franchitti's accomplishments on the track are quite impressive and despite his failed attempt at NASCAR, the driver should go down as one of best of his generation in IndyCar racing.

"You can go out and win the next six races and you will rattle anybody. Otherwise, what's the point? I think for us right now, after our bad week last week, we're going to have fun, we're going to run harder and see what happens." -- Juan Pablo Montoya, describing his attitude for the rest of The Chase.

"When people are clean with you, you're going to be clean with them. When they race the hell out of you, you're going to do the same. That's what it is. But you're going to be ending beating it, banging it and hitting it and getting hit. It's part of the deal. It's fun." -- Juan Pablo Montoya, describing his attitude of racing other drivers on the track.

"He's an aggressive driver. We've seen it from him before. I thought I did something to make him mad because I didn't understand why he was just driving into me for no reason. But hey, that is Martinsville. That's kind of the way he drives. And I just tried not to make him mad anymore and race him as clean as I could. And unfortunately my car wasn't as good on the restarts and he got by me and we had a great battle for third and we raced clean at the end -- and that's all that really matters. I hope it's not something that transfers over because I don't know really what I did if I did do something." -- Jeff Gordon, describing his battle with Juan Pablo Montoya in Sunday's race.

"We need to pick it up. Eighths, sevenths, that won't get it right now. But you know what: we gave it everything we had." -- Mark Martin, describing what he needs to do in the final four races of The Chase.

Halloween at Talladega, just the combination is enough to send a shiver down anyone's spine.