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Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon on Martinsville's front row...but Jimmie Johnson is still the man in command

  Ryan Newman, in his NASCAR cocoon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   They're all lame ducks now, just about all of them, and we're only half-way through the chase.
   So they're just playing for jacks.
   Ryan Newman took the pole Friday for Sunday's Martinsville 500, but about all he can celebrate at the moment is a great first season with Chevrolet and new team owner Tony Stewart.
    Newman is nearly 300 points behind stock car tour leader Jimmie Johnson, who is running away with this year's NASCAR championship, with three wins in the first five playoff races, and is now at Martinsville Speedway, a flat half-mile that he all but 'owns.'
   Even Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon, on the outside of the front row for Sunday's 1:30 p.m. ET start, says it's all over but the shouting, unless Johnson falters. And the chances of Mr. October making a mistake are just about nil.
    "You could probably put Jimmie in the wall, and he'd just bounce off, head to the pits, get it all fixed, and come back to win," one-time title contender Carl Edwards says with a sigh.
   Edwards, who was the preseason pick to win this title, after a nine-win 2008, is still winless this year. But he did make the chase, though he's never really sparkled and now sits a whopping 341 points down.
   How to beat Johnson? "Well, I was thinking inviting him to a game of Frisbee," Edwards said with a straight-face. Edwards broke his foot playing mid-week Frisbee a month ago, and it took him right off-stride.
    Gordon, who was key to getting Johnson this job with car owner Rick Hendrick eight years ago, and who has frequently vacationed with Johnson, says "Jimmie and I are always going to be really good friends…but we might be better friends 15 or 20 years from now, because right now I'm a competitor like every other competitor out there that wants to beat him.
    "Because I'm at Hendrick Motorsports, and his teammate, I see everything that goes on, and I'm aware of the setups and the driving styles and the data and all those things…and sometimes that can make it even more frustrating when you're getting beat.
    "At the same time it makes you hungrier to want to push harder to do everything you can to go out there and beat them.
    "So it's definitely affected our friendship, there's no doubt about it. We're competitors on the track.
     "I'm not going to go over and pat him on the back and say how great he is and 'I love you, man' when I really want to beat him.
     "But at the end of the day I respect him. I know the story of how he got here. And I think he's a great guy and a great driver.
     "I think he's pushed all of us in the sport. That team has pushed all of us to be better, to push ourselves harder, and to step up.
    "I don't have any regrets about anything. I'm proud that we've broadened Hendrick Motorsports and that Hendrick Motorsports continues to have the success.
    "I have had enough confidence in what I'm doing as a driver that if we get beat it's because we're getting beat by a better team and they're doing a better job with the same tools and resources that we have.
    "But that definitely pushes us to work harder and be better.
    "And it will make it that much more rewarding on those days when we do finish ahead of them…or can beat them for a championship. I don't know if that's going to happen but I hope so.
     "I still believe in myself and my own experience and skills and our team.
     "So, yeah, there's definitely been some challenging moments, and days. It gets harder to go to victory lane and congratulate them when you want it as badly for yourself.
    "While you want to see them win four in a row, and you want to see Rick Hendrick win four in a row at the same time, you want to be the one who is preventing them from doing that.
     "It's a tough balance."
    The rest of the title challengers:
   Brian Vickers left his game in Richmond. He's 485 down in just five weeks.
   Denny Hamlin blew it up with back to back disasters at California and Charlotte. He's 372 down.
   Kasey Kahne never really got in gear. He's 331 out.
   Greg Biffle, who has been in a strangely funky mood the last few weeks, since falling out of the hunt, is 268 down.
   Juan Pablo Montoya is still a bit miffed about that restart early in Sunday's Charlotte 500 that cost him a shot at the title. He's 195 down.
   Kurt Busch may be able to release crew chief Pat Tryson before the end of the season (Tryson is to move over to Michael Waltrip's Toyota team next season), because he's fall 177 points down to Johnson.
   Tony Stewart, fourth in the standings, 155 out, has an outside shot at getting back in the game if Johnson screws up somewhere. But most likely Stewart and Gordon are lapped traffic in Johnson's run.
   Only Mark Martin, 90 down, has a decent shot at making a game of this.
   Yes, the mathematics may still say otherwise, but the mathematics of this doesn't take into account Jimmie Johnson's prowess at the wheel, Chad Knaus' talents atop the pit box, and car owner Rick Hendrick's ability to crank out championship after championship. This one would be Hendrick's ninth.

  Starting Lineup for Sunday's Martinsville Tums 500, Race 6 of the 10-race NASCAR championship


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