Five things we learned in California
Jimmie Johnson will be driving toward history the final weeks
Mark Martin just doesn't have the raw speed of his teammate
Don't forget about Tony Stewart as a title contender down the stretch
1. Mark Martin had better get busy. As good as Jimmie Johnson has looked in NASCAR's postseason, Martin has held his own. An opening win at New Hampshire coupled with solid finishes at Dover and Kansas kept him in the points lead. But even a fourth-place finish at California on Sunday wasn't enough to prevent Johnson from taking over the lead in the Chase standings. Things aren't going to get any easier the next two weeks -- Charlotte and Martinsville are two of Johnson's favorite tracks. Martin runs well on them, too, but it's becoming clear that his No. 5 Chevy just doesn't have the raw speed to match his teammate's.
2. Johnson wants his fourth straight title in the worst way. J.J.'s victory celebration was as animated a display from him as any in recent memory. Perhaps it was the presence in the winner's circle of team owner Rick Hendrick, who hasn't attended the last few victory festivities. Or maybe it was the fact that before the race, ABC had aired an hour of the new, moving Hendrick documentary Together. But more likely it was because his dominating win pushed him closer to accomplishing something that no other driver in the long history of NASCAR has managed to pull off. History is waiting. And Johnson has the lead in the final weeks. It's going to take a massive blunder, or a ton of bad luck, to keep him from his goal now.
3. Juan Pablo Montoya needs to win. Another Chase race, another top-five for NASCAR's biggest international star. But all Montoya's excellence (he was third at California) comes to nothing if he keeps losing points to the overall leader -- a fact he admitted in the postrace press conference. If he doesn't win next week at Charlotte, his Chase for the championship will be all but over.
4. Denny Hamlin isn't ready to win. Hamlin was leading with 60 laps to go, hunting his first ever win in the Chase, when he collided with Montoya on a restart. His Toyota spun into a barrier at the end of pit road and suffered such heavy damage that he had to return to the garage. He came back after missing 25 laps, but NASCAR sent him off the track because he was unable to maintain the minimum speed necessary to compete. "I made a rookie mistake," he said. "I thought I was clear and I misjudged it. I got to apologize to the team. They deserve better than that." His 37th-place finish shuffled him back from sixth to ninth in the points standings.
5. Tony Stewart isn't done yet. Things looked bad for Stewart after a speeding penalty on pit road moved him from 10th place to a lap down on the leaders. He spent the rest of the day scrambling, and with all the late restarts and crashes was able to move himself back up to fifth. After his win at Kansas last week, he's now in fourth place, just 84 points behind Johnson. And he suddenly seems as big a threat as Martin to take the title.