NASCAR & Auto Racing

Bad new for Chase rivals: the 48 team is still hungry

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Jimmie Johnson wants to be scared. He wants to be worried about losing. He wants to stay hungry.

After winning yet another race at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, more than doubling his lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings in the process, NASCAR's two-time defending champion believes complacency might be his biggest opponent.

That, of course, is not a bad spot to be in.

"It's getting closer," Johnson said, allowing himself to peek ahead toward a possible third straight championship after his victory in the Tums 500. "Today was a big step in the right direction."

It absolutely was. With Greg Biffle having to fight back from a lap down to finish 12th and Jeff Burton losing a lap to a late pit-road penalty and winding up 17th, Johnson now leads Biffle by 149 points and Burton by 152 with just four races left this season.

Given that Johnson has finished no worse than 14th in his past 22 Chase races - going back to a race at Talladega in 2006 - the chance that he's going to slip up and let anyone back into contention seem remote.

But Johnson isn't counting on anything just yet.

"Being overconfident would be a mistake," he said after his sixth win this season and his fourth in the past five races at this .526-mile track. "We need to carry this momentum and make it work the right way for us.

"We can't be cocky. If we get cocky we're going to get our hand slammed in the door. We're striving for it. We want to win out."

Don't laugh. Johnson won this race last year, too, then reeled off three more wins in subsequent weeks as he choked the life out of teammate Jeff Gordon's hopes for a fifth career title.

And don't expect Johnson's team to turn its switch from "kill," either.

In Saturday's practice sessions, Johnson said he felt his car was the second best on the track. Only Gordon, who's too far back to challenge him for this year's title, might have been better. Johnson surmised his No. 48 Chevrolet was better than Burton's Chevrolet or the Fords driven by Biffle or Edwards and, for a few moments, allowed him to think he could live with that.

As soon as crew chief Chad Knaus got a whiff of that, though, he was on his driver to refocus on making his car the best, not just good enough.

"I am never satisfied," Knaus said. "We have to be that way. It's real easy in this industry to get complacent. If we don't keep improving our race cars we won't win races and win championships. The deeper that fire burns inside of you the more success you're going to have."

That fire burned through another race at Martinsville in convincing fashion. Johnson led for 339 of 500 laps, including 202 of the final 210.

There was a point in the final 100 laps, though, that his road to victory did not seem clear. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. worked his way to second and, with a car that got better the deeper into a run he went, cut Johnson's lead to a car length or two just before Reed Sorenson wrecked on Lap 458 to bring out a yellow flag.

Knaus brought Johnson to pit road and the rest of the lead-lap cars except for Matt Kenseth's Ford followed. Kenseth led briefly before Johnson resumed control, and Earnhardt Jr. spent more time holding off Carl Edwards to finish second than he did trying to take first from Johnson.

"They had such a good race car," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was just not that good. ...I was spinning the tires off the corner trying to catch Jimmie. That's where he was beating me. I was trying to do what I could with Jimmie, but he was so strong."

Burton got blocked as he tried to enter his pit stall on his final stop. When he finally got turned in, the front wheels of his car were ahead of the front line of his pit stall. His crew changed tires anyway, and that's a one-lap penalty.

Biffle stayed out on a yellow flag 170 laps into the race to gain track position, but as a result he had to pit under green on Lap 249. Seven laps later a caution flag flew and Biffle was trapped a lap down. He finally got the lap back but couldn't fight his way into contention.

Edwards rebounded from a setback last week at Charlotte with his third-place finish but still is fourth in the standings, 198 points back. He's not ready to hand Johnson the championship yet.

"He could have any sort of trouble in the next two races and be bunched back there with us," Edwards said. "It could happen to anyone."

But it never seems to happen to Johnson. How does that feel?

"It feels just like you think it would feel," Edwards said. "You're like, 'Damn, those guys are good.' "

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