From SI.com, November 9, 2009
MARK MARTIN IS BACK IN THE TITLE HUNT. HEADING INTO THE Nov. 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson needed only to average a top 10 finish over the last three Chase events to cruise to his fourth Sprint Cup championship, even if Martin, his closest pursuer, won out and led the most laps in every race. Considering the ruthless dominance that Johnson has shown throughout this Chase, that assignment seemed as easy for him as flipping his ignition switch. But then, in an instant of crunching sheet metal, everything changed—for Johnson, for Martin and for NASCAR.
On the third lap in the Dickies 500, Johnson was minding his own business on the high side of the racetrack in the middle of the pack when Sam Hornish Jr. momentarily lost control of his car. Hornish had been nudged from behind by David Reutimann, which caused his number 77 car to become loose. Hornish slid up the track and into Johnson, who was in the process of passing Hornish. Johnson bounced off the outside wall and got hit again by Hornish before slamming into the inside wall. The 48 car was virtually totaled, but Johnson was able to limp back to the garage. Crew chief Chad Knaus set his men to work rebuilding the ruined race car, seemingly against all odds.
After more than an hour, Johnson returned to the track, puttered around for the rest of the afternoon, gained a few spots on cars that fizzled out and finished 38th. He ended up losing 111 points in the standings and left Texas holding a 73-point lead over Martin, who finished fourth, with two races to go.
Make no mistake: This is still Johnson's championship to lose. The 73-point lead is the second highest any Chase champ has held at this point in the season. And no Chase driver who has been atop the standings with two races to go has ever lost the championship.
Still, Martin isn't out of it. Why? Because the schedule sets up better for him than it does for Johnson. Martin has excelled on flat tracks this season. The next race is at Phoenix, a track with 9- to 11-degree banking, where Martin led the most laps and won in the spring. Yes, Johnson won the previous three races at Phoenix, but Martin could well have the edge this time based on the notes from the spring that his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, will lean on.
Martin also should have the edge, at least on paper, over Johnson at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of the season finale. Martin has long been considered NASCAR's top racer on intermediate length tracks. "He might be the best there's ever been [on intermediates]," owner Rick Hendrick said earlier this season. Homestead is a 1.5-mile track. Martin even has a better career average finish at Homestead (12.0 to 13.6) than Johnson.
Does this mean that Martin will catch Johnson? It won't be easy, but for the first time in a few weeks, we actually have a battle for the championship.