NASCAR & Auto Racing

Johnson looking hard to beat at halfway mark in Chase

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Martinsville Speedway is the place where Jimmie Johnson started his four-race winning streak a year ago on his way to his second consecutive championship.

As rain fell Friday and wiped out qualifying, putting the points-leading Johnson on the pole for the second week in a row, the drivers closest to him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup couldn't help but wonder if a third straight title was almost a foregone conclusion.

"I don't know where Jimmie gets his horseshoes," Carl Edwards said, "but he's got amazing luck, and they do everything right, so we just have to hope for something strange to happen."

Edwards and everyone else know, though, that time is running out.

After Sunday's Tums 500 on NASCAR's shortest, trickiest track, only four events remain on the schedule, and Johnson will be the defending race champion in three of them.

Tony Stewart, who has won two championships himself, said Saturday it's difficult not to look at what Johnson has accomplished over the last three seasons and simply marvel.

"It's hard to win it once," Stewart said of the championship, which he won in 2002 and 2005. "To win it two years in a row is extremely hard, and to just be in a position where you have the opportunity to try and win it three years in a row is unbelievable."

But Johnson hasn't opened a prohibitive lead by any stretch. At least not yet.

Jeff Burton is second in points, 69 behind, and Greg Biffle is third, another 17 back. After that comes Edwards, whose six victories for the season are the second most in the series, but who has finished one spot behind Johnson twice in the first five Chase races.

"I think it's 35 points a race we have to make up or something, and that's assuming that Jimmie doesn't have any bad luck," said Edwards, who has finished 29th and 33rd in the last two weeks. "I feel like all we can do now is just go race as hard as we can."

He's not alone, although Stewart said he won't change his approach to racing at all, even while sitting seventh in points and needing to close a 228-point gap in five races.

Nor will Jeff Gordon, who is eighth and 245 points back.

Burton and then Gordon have entered this race the last two seasons with the points lead and need to look back only to last year to see that Johnson's advantage is not insurmountable.

Gordon led Johnson by 68 points in 2007 and seemed on the road to his fifth title before his Hendrick Motorsports teammate eventually won by 77 points, a swing of 145.

Gordon said the thing that impressed the company about Johnson when it decided to hire him was his ability to contend with less-than-stellar equipment, and that's not a problem now.

"You can't do it on your own, and that whole team has been extremely impressive to me when it really counts most," Gordon said. "When it's all on the line for the championship, not only do those guys step it up, they also come through in the clutch when they need it most. They have in the past couple of years for those championships and they certainly have this year."

And in the process, they've given the entire garage a big target to shoot for.

"They've raised the bar and we have to answer that call, be better and run them down," Clint Bowyer said. "A team like that is not gonna make a mistake. They're just not."

And the bad news for the garage is that Johnson has become a comfortable front-runner.

"In the past, I've probably wanted to be in a different position and be a close second or something and not have to have the pressure," he said. "But this Chase, this team, the confidence we have in ourselves and what we've developed over the years and the experience we've been through, that has made me much more comfortable with where we are today."