Just two races into the Chase an air of inevitability has begun to settle over the Cup garage. Jimmie Johnson, in pursuit of a record fourth straight Sprint Cup championship, doesn't yet lead the standings—he trails front-runner Mark Martin by 10 points—but after his dominating victory at Dover on Sunday, during which his number 48 Chevy led a mind-numbing 271 of 400 laps, it seems only a matter of time before he does. Already there are signs of frustration among his rivals, some of whom griped openly about the fact that Johnson, along with seven other Cup drivers, had been allowed to turn laps on the Dover track in early August as part of a tire test for Goodyear. "We had a decent car, but we're not going to beat guys that came here and tested," said Greg Biffle, whose Chase hopes took a hit with his 13th-place run. (He ranks ninth, 138 points back.) "Look at the guys that didn't tire-test; we ran terrible."
Never mind that Biffle finished in front of five drivers who did participate in the trial. (Different teams are chosen by Goodyear and NASCAR for each of the eight or nine tire tests a year.) The more likely reason for Johnson's superiority at Dover was that he almost always runs well there—five wins, 11 top 10s in 16 starts—just as he almost always runs well in the Chase. Since the start of his first title run, in 2006, Johnson has won nine of 32 postseason races and hasn't finished worse than 15th in the last 28. If his fellow Chasers are already discouraged with eight races left this season, it's only because they're all too aware of what's to come.
The only man standing in Johnson's way, indeed the only man who seems capable of beating him at the moment, is the 50-year-old Martin, NASCAR's feel-good story of 2009. A winner two weeks ago at Loudon, Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate drove his number 5 Chevy to a second-place finish on Sunday to maintain the overall points lead. Martin, a 27-year veteran, not only leads the Cup series with five victories but has also been one of its hottest drivers for the last month—he's on a streak of five straight top 5s. "I think the 5 [car] is tougher than the 48 right now," says Juan Pablo Montoya, who has two top 5 runs of his own in the Chase but has yet to finish in front of Martin.
Having cars ranked first and second in the Chase is a familiar dilemma at Hendrick, where teams are expected to share data and setup information without reservation. In 2007 Johnson ran off four straight postseason victories to overtake teammate Jeff Gordon and win his second Cup. Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, says that he would give Martin's team "anything to help them win." And while Alan Gustafson, Knaus's counterpart on Martin's car, says the same thing, he does allow that tensions are likely to rise. "I've been beaten with my own stuff before," he says. "And we used Jimmie's stuff and beat him at Michigan. When you do the work, it can be tough to accept that."
October 4, 2009
For his part Martin hasn't resigned himself to another runner-up finish. "That dude is still Superman in my book," he says of Johnson. "But it's only been two races. Let's see what happens in the next four or five."
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Cup analysis by Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus
The best performance at Dover by a driver not in the Chase was by Matt Kenseth (below), who finished a strong third on Sunday. The 2003 Cup champion had been a postseason fixture since the Chase began in '04, but he missed out this year despite winning the first two races of the season. A miserable summer stretch, in which he finished outside the top 10 in 10 of 14 races, doomed his chances. Ironically, operating without the pressure of the Chase may be the key to his recent improvement. According to crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, the number 17 team experimented all weekend with setup changes, something they wouldn't have attempted had they been in the top 12. "It's a step in the right direction," says Kenseth.