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Jimmie Johnson turns UP the heat on his rivals in the championship race!

 Jimmie Johnson -- flat amazing. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Is Jimmie Johnson about to apply the coup de grace in this year's NASCAR championship chase?
   Or maybe this is just Groundhog Day all over again. And again. And again.
   Johnson and teammate Mark Martin, 1-2 in the Sprint Cup standings midway through the title race, will start 1-2 in Saturday night's 500-miler. (The race is sponsored by hometown Bank of America, but to be more politically correct the company has renamed the event the NASCAR Banking 500.)
    Thursday's cold drizzle and light rain finally wound down about sunset, NASCAR dried the track and squeezed in a couple of hours of practice before finally getting pole runs underway at 9 p.m.
   And speeds were amazingly fast.
   Johnson clocked in a 192.376 mph, a tenth of a second quicker than Martin, to in the pole. That's one of the quickest laps ever in NASCAR's new car-of-tomorrow.
   "Man, its fast. You're not out of the gas long," Johnson said.
   "Down the straightaways it doesn't seem that fast….but then here comes that next corner.
   "Whatever is going on with the tires right now, there is grip."
   "The speed doesn't scare you, as much as driving over your head," Martin said. "The track was absolutely incredible. I only made four laps…and all four were spectacular.
    "An enormous amount of that speed was in track condition."
   Saturday night? "Things are looking good for us," Martin said. "I stepped up my game….just not quite enough."
    The championship? Martin, who has never won one, has consistently tried to avoid putting title pressure on himself. And he's continuing that now: "You come see me after the race at Talladega, and then we can talk about the championship race.
   "I still remember 1990….and I led the points most of the year, and I really thought I was going to win it. And I didn't. But I'm never going to let pressure like that ever get to me again. I'm just not."
    The speed here has been surprising.
   "It's just incredibly fast…feels like an Indy-car," former Indy-star Sam Hornish said.
    Johnson may only have a 12-point lead over Martin, and there are four more men still tight in the chase, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Kurt Busch (121 points down, with six races to go). But psychologically Johnson has already all but beaten his rivals.
   Lowe's Motor Speedway has long been one of his strong tracks, and next week's stop, Martinsville Speedway, is also a good track for him.
   Martin likes this track too; it's his favorite. But Martinsville has never been high on his list, so that could be a crucial stop for him and crew chief Alan Gustafson.
   Johnson looks comfortable with things…extremely comfortable: "We feel good about things.
   "Obviously the win last week (at California's Auto Club Speedway) is a big confidence-booster and gives us some momentum.
   "We're at another great track; we have a lot of great tracks coming up.
    "I'm certainly optimistic…but at the same time the past is the past and we have to go out and do our jobs.
    "I'm really trying not to look too far ahead…because I just don't know what's going to happen.
    "And I don't want to get emotionally attached to different aspects of different races -- If I'm running fifth at Martinsville, a track I feel I should win at, I don't want to beat myself down or create any issues within the team.
   "I just need to get all I can over the next six weeks.
     "But it would be so nice to have a cushion going into Talladega (Nov. 1)…and you can try to race a smart race at that point."
     As if to rub it in, Johnson points out "I do feel like during the summer there were a bunch that got away.
    "We could have had another three or four wins. Circumstances just turned out to where we didn't take advantage. In some cases we ran out of gas and finished in the thirties.
    "I can see where big chunks of points went away.
    "But we're leading it now, and I'll take it."
    Busch, though having to pass five strong rivals if he's to make it to the top of the points, is also having to deal with the issue of needing a new crew chief next season, with Pat Tryson leaving. But he doesn't want to talk about that, rather focus on trying to pick up ground on Johnson and the rest.
   "This is a great opportunity for us to continue our stretch – we've finished, on average the last few races, 7.5," Busch says.
   "That's a good average finish. But we're getting beaten by better numbers. 
    "When Dale Earnhardt Sr. was winning championships, and Jeff Gordon, the magic number was seven, as far as your average finish.
     "But with this new chase format, seven will only get you sixth in points and 121 off the lead. 
   "It's not a number we can't overcome. We still have six races to go. A nice steady approach these next two weeks is what we need.
   "It's all about us to knock Jimmie Johnson off the top.  Those guys have the perfect combination it seems for all the tracks. 
    "They've done it the last three years. 
      "It's amazing. 
      "Just the combination of Hendrick Motorsports, Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson, and Chevrolet…you name it. The depth they have is deep – It's like having a basketball team with four or five guys on the bench who could be starters for other teams. It seems like they just have all the weapons. 
    "For the rest of us, it's going to take some luck."
     In the first four chase races Johnson has two wins, a fourth and a ninth, an amazing average. He won the title a few years ago with an amazing 5.0 average finish, and he could beat even that this year.
    "It seems as if they're not going to back down," Busch says in amazement. "It seems like they can go out there and run top-three every race…like they're just in a different league. 
    "David versus Goliath, it sometimes feels like that. 
    "Then there are moments where we're hanging right with them…and then at the end of the day we finish eighth and they finish 1-2-3, and it's like 'Whoa! What happened?' 
    "I think they can sustain it, but it's going to be tough. There are always loose wheels, flat tires, blown motors…and of course there's always Talladega. 
    "We'll have to see how their results stack up after Talladega.
    "But a 3.5 average finish might end up taking this thing home."

The starting lineup for the Charlotte 500, Race Five of the championship chase



Keep an eye on Kenseth this

Keep an eye on Kenseth this weekend. He got a great qualifying run, he's been on a hot streak (well ... warm anyway) lately and he really likes this track. I heard an interview he did with a local (Milwaukee) radio station earlier this week. He was in a suprisingly good mood.

Hey, Hey! How 'bout that

Hey, Hey! How 'bout that Kenseth guy. What a great run for the 17 team. Let's hope they continue the momentum and give DeWalt a good send-off.

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