If it's Martinsville Speedway, make the check out to Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Hey, there's good news and bad news:
-- Jimmie Johnson 'owns' Clay Campbell's flat half-mile, and this could be where he takes a big leg up on those few remaining NASCAR title rivals, particularly Matt Kenseth.
-- And for just about everyone else, it's only 75 days till Daytona International Speedway opens for 2014 Daytona 500 testing.
Johnson came out of Sunday's Talladega 500 back atop the Sprint Cup standings, though just four points ahead of Kenseth.
And Johnson, an eight-time winner here, comes into Sunday's Martinsville 500 gunning for his third straight tour win at this track.
On the other hand, Kenseth has never won Martinsville and has only the 15th-best finishing average here over the past eight years.
Denny Hamlin, always a tough cookie here but long out of title contention, won the pole Friday at record speed, 99.595 mph.
But Johnson wasn't far off, and he'll start outside front row at 1:30 p.m. ET.
However.....Johnson will be surrounded by Joe Gibbs' three drivers, Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, which may give Johnson pause to reflect. Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, both trying to hang tough in the chase, will be on row five.
"Any time we start on the pole here, it usually bodes well," Hamlin says. Hamlin has been in R&D mode in these final weeks of the season; that bit him at Talladega. But Hamlin says he's on a full-blown Martinsville setup this weekend, because this is a good track for him, and it's been over a year since his last tour win. That California crash in March effectively ended his season as a title contender.
You don't think these Joe Gibbs guys -- Denny Hamlin (L), Matt Kenseth (C) and Kyle Busch -- might gang up on Jimmie Johnson Sunday, do you? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"As fast as Jimmie was in the spring, maybe we can push him to use up his stuff this time," Hamlin said.
"Obviously racing for a win, I'll be more aggressive racing against a non-teammate. But I will not risk taking out a teammate for a win."
Will Hamlin be the wild card here this weekend?
Well, it's been a tough year....
"It's tough because what my fans see are the struggles -- they see the blown engines, and things like that we've had here
recently," Hamliln says. "But those are all things we signed up for when we didn't make the chase. We decided it would be best for us to
focus on next year. Everything we've done since not making the chase has been focused on running well next year."
But not here. Hamlin wants a win, badly.
So Johnson and Kenseth may have to work around that.
Head to head, in their 23 Martinsville races together, Johnson has finished ahead of Kenseth 20 times.
By the numbers, then, in Round Seven of the championship chase Johnson could deliver, if not the coup de grâce, then at least a hard blow
And Kenseth realizes it:
"This is one of Jimmie's best tracks, and Denny and Kyle, so we know we need to come and run strong and get a good finish.
"You can almost pencil the 48 in. Jimmie is hard to beat here. Unless something goofy happens.
"So this is a challenge. But maybe less of a challenge than last weekend. You have more control here."
But Kenseth hopes he can bank on some help from now-teammate Denny Hamlin, whose words of wisdom may have been key in Kenseth's strong run in the spring -- Kenseth led 96 laps, finished 14th. That's more laps led here in that one race than in Kenseth's entire career.
"This is one of Denny's best places, so I try to learn as much as I can," Kenseth said. "I don't have a lot of good finishes here.
"Yes, this is a great track for Jimmie. But is there a bad one?"
Johnson himself, with only four races left in the playoffs, says he's focused on Kenseth now "first and foremost."
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon all have an outside shot at the title, but time is running short. Most likely both Johnson and Kenseth would have to have trouble for any of those three to climb back up. Kenseth has had eight less than great finishes this season; Johnson, seven.
Of course anyone looking too far ahead here might need to recall Brad Keselowski just one year ago -- Keselowski came here atop the standings but qualified a dismal 32nd while Johnson won the pole. Johnson went on to dominate that race and win, but Keselowski rallied to finish sixth to hang tight in the points, and of course Keselowski went on to win the title.
Johnson is averaging a 5.5 finish in the chase; Kenseth, 7.1.
For Kenseth Talladega can been seen as a lost opportunity. He's been master of the restrictor plate tracks the past few years. But he and Johnson were unable to get the low line moving at the end of Sunday's race, and Kenseth finished 20th, Johnson 13th.
"Jimmie and I are friends, but I've asked him not to ask me for any tips this week," Kenseth cracked.
"This year I've felt we could win any given weekend. I hope we
"And I believe if we do everything right the next three weeks, I feel we can run head-to-head with anybody."
Kenseth arrived here just after a right-side blowout at Texas Motor Speedway Tuesday during a test for next week's tour stop.
"Whenever you have a tire failure you're concerned, but I haven't talked with Goodyear yet," Kenseth said. "I don't know what the story is."
Kenseth and Johnson are expected to be two of the top drivers in next week's Texas 500.
The tire failure came just nine laps into his first run Tuesday.
Kenseth was testing Texas along with 15 other drivers. The tires are the same as used in the spring, when Kyle Busch, Kenseth's teammate, won.
Joe Gibbs' Toyota drivers have dominated this season's 1-1/2-mile tracks, winning Las Vegas, Texas, Darlington, Kentucky and Atlanta.
Teams said Kenseth wasn't the only driver having tire issues; everyone was having some minor issues at least with the right fronts, basically heavy wear. Kenseth's right-front in fact didn't really blow out; it was still holding air. However it was showing excessive wear.
Some teams said with only a relative handful of drivers at Texas, the track didn't get enough rubber into the surface to ameliorate the wear. They said they anticipated better wear once the track got more cars on it and more rubber.
Some teams were going 30 laps -- 45 miles -- before showing cords. Some teams went 40 laps before seeing the issue.
Goodyear's Greg Stucker says the speeds are higher at Texas now than speeds were in the spring. And when NASCAR was at the Fort Worth track in April, Kurt Busch called the speeds 'ludicrous fast' after brother Kyle won that pole at 196 mph, six mph quicker than last year's Texas pole.
"Our guys were seeing a lot of wear early, which isn't a surprise at Texas," Goodyear's Stucker says. "Matt had a tire that lost a lot of tread; we're examining it now, to see if there's anything we can find with it.
"We don't know yet.
"We saw some drivers who were showing a lot of heat on those inboard shoulders on the right fronts, which is not uncommon at Texas.
"The cars were faster than in the spring. This is the same tire package we ran in the spring, so everyone knows what to expect. We'll just have to make sure everyone is watching what they're doing next weekend."
Testing will continue next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with another six-team, 15-driver test set for three days, in advance of the season finale in three weeks. Among drivers to test are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne, Michael McDowell, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Elliott Sadler, Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya.
In long awaited news, NASCAR has announced it will require all Sprint Cup, Truck and Nationwide drivers to have a pre-season neurocognitive baseline test.
That test, a verbal and visual test of memory, speed and reaction time, can be used to judge the effects of a subsequent crash.
NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell, vice president of racing operations, said NASCAR made this decision "because we think it is important to drivers' health for doctors to have the best information and tools available in evaluating injuries."
Drivers this season were offered two Q&A sessions with a top neurosurgeon, Dr. Vinay Deshmukh, M.D. of Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates, who is a member of NASCAR's medical advisory group .
O'Donnell says now ""We are extremely confident that our concussion protocol is among the best in sports.
"Implementing baseline testing is a primary example of our philosophy to protect our competitors the best that we can."
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion at Kentucky during a tire test in August 2012 and a second concussion October 2012 at Talladega, he decided to sit out two races to recover. And Earnhardt revealed he had not talked about that Kentucky concussion.
That took Earnhardt out of the championship chase, during one of his best seasons ever. And it brought renewed criticism of both NASCAR's concussion policies -- that of leaving it all up to the driver himself whether or not to sit out -- and NASCAR's no-substitution ruling, which requires a driver to start the team's car at the next race or not earn any championship points.
As strong as Denny Hamlin can perform here, and as hungry as he is, rivals might think they're seeing double Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)