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Drivers who are still fixing to challenge leader Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup title—a club by now pretty much limited to Mark Martin (90 points behind Johnson), Jeff Gordon (135) and Tony Stewart (155)—have to be looking at the next two weekends as their last, best hopes. Martinsville Speedway, the site of this Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500, and Talladega Superspeedway, where the Amp Energy 500 will be run on Nov. 1, are the two most treacherous venues in the Chase and are tracks on which Johnson, who won his sixth race of the season last Saturday in Charlotte, may actually be vulnerable.
Martinsville is NASCAR's shortest track, a tight-and-narrow, .526-mile oval that tends to produce bumper-car-style racing. Drivers, especially late in the race, often push their competitors into the wall to gain track position. Yes, Johnson has excelled at Martinsville, winning five of the last six races there, but many in the garage will tell you—very quietly—that his team's difficulties on pit road this season could mean trouble on Sunday.
Since Jeremy West, who had been the team's rear-tire changer, injured his back at Bristol on Aug. 22, the team has gone through three replacements for him in seven races, upsetting the timing at pit stops. Even when Johnson won at Fontana, Calif., on Oct. 11, he had to make up ground he'd lost on pit road. If the trouble continues at Martinsville—the toughest track in NASCAR on which to pass—Johnson likely won't be able to come back. "There's no space at Martinsville, which sets up well for Mark Martin," says Mike Calinoff, the spotter for Matt Kenseth. "No one has been smoother than Mark."
Martin, though, has struggled recently at Talladega, the 2.66-mile tri-oval that will also challenge Johnson. Because of its susceptibility to pileups, Talladega has historically been a place for big point swings. Last year Carl Edwards was second in the Chase standings and trailed Johnson by only 10 points when he rammed into the rear of Greg Biffle's car on the 174th lap at Talladega, triggering a 12-car wreck. Edwards wound up 29th; Johnson ran ninth to extend his lead over Edwards to 72 points and essentially win the Cup. "Talladega is the wild card," says Steve Letarte, Gordon's crew chief. "We'll probably do the opposite of what Jimmie does. If he runs in front, we'll run in back. If he's in back, we'll go in front. There's always a possibility of gaining a lot of points there."
For Johnson the goal is clear: race well enough over the next two weeks to emerge from Talladega with a lead of 100 points or more. If he does that, it would take "a miracle" to catch him, according to one non-Chase driver. Why? Because in winning the last three Cup titles, Johnson has proved himself the best closer in NASCAR history and he traditionally runs strong on the last three tracks of the schedule—Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. The Chase's remaining five races may in effect come down to just two.
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Chase analysis by Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus