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So it's down to Jimmie Johnson vs Mark Martin for the title: wide-open at Phoenix, or cautious and careful? | NASCAR Racing Breaking News: Trackside Live, Every Week, Every Sprint Cup Race - MikeMulhern.net


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So it's down to Jimmie Johnson vs Mark Martin for the title: wide-open at Phoenix, or cautious and careful?

  Jimmie Johnson (L) and crew chief Chad Knaus: Toyota executives have, tongue-in-cheek, suggested car owner Rick Hendrick should split up this championship combination for the good of the sport. Maybe Knaus could do something with hard-luck Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   So the season is down to the point where it's 'no mistakes' time?
   Probably for Jimmie Johnson, who crashed the third lap into last weekend's Texas 500 but still leads the NASCAR standings with two races to go.
   "Up until last week things just seemed to be going really, really well," Johnson says.  "A lot of positive emotions….
   "And to get through Talladega -- we missed the big one, everything was in great shape. 
   "Then we roll into Texas, and lap three we take our lumps." 
    And it all happened so quickly, just moments after the race began, like a bolt out of the blue.
    "I don't think lightning can strike two weeks in a row," Johnson said. "I'm certainly hoping it doesn't." 
    To which Mark Martin said dryly "That's what I said at Talladega: I don't expect lightning to strike twice.
   "But for me it did.
    "Sometimes the unexpected happens."
    However typically not to Jimmie Johnson. 
    The historic line in this sport has been that a driver needs to be within 30 or 40, maybe 50 points of the tour leader heading into the final race to have any decent shot at overtaking for the title. Johnson has a 73-point cushion on Martin (112 on Jeff Gordon, who failed to rise to the occasion at Texas, in a performance some have labeled, however harshly, as 'choke.')
     Johnson calls that 73-point lead "a very, very healthy lead. I feel very good about our points lead. 
    "But it's hard to look back at the week before, at 184, the comfort that brought."
   And if this sport is anything about momentum, well, Texas really didn't give anyone in the chase except Martin much to write home about.
    "I'm used to leaving Texas with a strong performance, a lot of momentum coming into Phoenix, with a ton of momentum," Johnson said. 
    "But I don't really have an 'emotion' for how last week went. I mean obviously it's a negative one. I'm disappointed to lose the points…but we didn't perform poorly.  We didn't have a chance to perform good or bad. 
    "So I have this blank spot about how last week went.
     "Unfortunately we lost 111 points."


    Did Kyle Busch wear himself out this season by running Trucks and Nationwide as well as Cup? He's going for an amazing 20th NASCAR win this weekend, and could clinch the Nationwide championship here at Phoenix....but he didn't make the Cup playoff cut (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


The Texas crash? Johnson blamed it on Sam Hornish, though David Reutimann was on the inside of Hornish at the time in a side-by-side battle when Johnson jumped to the outside off the corner to make it three-wide.
     "I really do a lot of thinking about what I did wrong," Johnson said. "And I'm not sure I did anything wrong. The corner before, I was hit from behind going into the turn.  I thought 'Man, going into one and two, they're going to check up again, so I should be on the outside, to avoid being spun out from behind.'
    "But I don't feel like I could have done anything differently.
    "But it doesn't help the feelings of losing 111 points.
   "All I can think about is three laps of Texas right now. That's all I've thought about for the whole week. 
    "Ready to get that out of the brain.  It's just a big, empty, negative feeling, because last week was just a major letdown."
    So in Sunday's 500 here, the key is to just make no mistakes?
    Not for Martin, who won here in the spring and could chop another 30 points off Johnson's lead if Johnson, as in April, finishes fourth again.
    "I'm going for it. I'm going after it every week," Martin vows. 
   "Every time I strap in that race car, I'm going after it. 
    "Every time I strap in that race car, I'm going to the extreme limits.  It's everything I got -- points or no points.
    "We turned upside down at Talladega. Had I managed not to be involved in that wreck, then the race would be on, and it would be basically down to who scored the most points in the last two races -- right down to performance.  
    "But there is a lot more to it than just flat-out performance."
    And for Martin, though this may be his last best chance to win the NASCAR title that has eluded him over his nearly 30-year career, there is more to life than just NASCAR championships: "I'm going to look at 2009 and say I've had the best year of my life -- personally as well as professionally. 
    "This has been the best year of my life. I've found so much peace and happiness…and good-quality time with people, relationships, family, coworkers, fans, competitors…as well as success on the racetrack."
    Still, over these final nine days of the season – which could be the nine biggest days of his entire career – Martin and everyone here realizes that he, though still the underdog to Johnson in this thing, has a golden opportunity to seal 'the best year' with that first NASCAR championship.

   Mark Martin: His last best chance? The most important nine days of his career. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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