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Again Brad Keselowski surprises. But Jimmie Johnson is back atop the championship standings and looking as powerful as ever

Again Brad Keselowski surprises. But Jimmie Johnson is back atop the championship standings and looking as powerful as ever

Jimmie: that sixth championship just weeks away? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Okay, anyone who wrote off Brad Keselowski here, after that miserable qualifying performance the other day, well, put some ketchup and mustard on your boots and start eating.
   Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe put on an inspired comeback in Sunday's Martinsville 500, even daring to gamble for the win in the final miles. And though they gave up the Sprint Cup points lead, with only three races left in the playoffs, Keselowski and Wolfe proved unshakeable....on a day when they were all but written off.
   The graveyard of championship dreams?
   That's what Martinsville Speedway was for Keselowski and Matt Kenseth one year ago. And that's the way it was sized up pre-race here for Keselowski, after a weak qualifying run Friday, which put him 32nd for Sunday's start, while Jimmie Johnson was on the pole.
   Well, one team's championship dreams did die here Sunday -- Denny Hamlin's, with a surprising electrical issue. He's 49 points down to new leader Johnson now,  and that pretty much makes it a title duel between  Johnson and Keselowski heading to Texas Motor Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway, and then Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Nov. 18th finale.

  Jimmie Johnson, on the inside, title rival Brad Keselowski on the outside (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "In order to be the champion, the tracks you know you can win at you have to win at.  We did that today," Johnson said after his first win of the chase.
    "Dover turned into a fuel mileage race, which isn't the best for us.  Certainly played into Brad's hands. 
    "The final three tracks, two of them if not all three, we can see that (a potential fuel mileage finish).  We're working hard to play that game if need be.  I think we're better at it than we were at the start of the chase.
     "We're getting smarter and better."
    Wolfe and Keselowski made an odd gamble at the end. With 18 men still on the lead lap, and Keselowski running sixth, with  just 20 laps or so to go, the yellow came out and Keselowski opted not to pit. Only Dale Earnhardt followed his lead. The other 16 drivers got fresh tires. And Johnson needed only a few laps to wrestle the lead away from Keselowski, who faded back to sixth.
   So the gamble wound up a draw, though it could have been worse for Keselowski.
   "I thought their decision to stay out would cost them a few more spots at the end, but Brad did a nice job of rallying," Johnson said.
    Johnson has been solid during the chase to be sure, but Keselowski and Wolfe have thrown several surprises at them, just like here.


  Brad Keselowski: avoided a knockout punch at Martinsville, hanging tough in the championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Still Johnson is becoming increasingly confident about taking a sixth championship.
   "We've done a very nice job over these seven races to put ourselves in the points lead," Johnson said.  "We've had a variety of different races finish with fuel mileage and things like that that have kept us out of victory lane and certainly played into their hands.
   "We're ready to race under any conditions. Brad is a great driver. That's a great team. 
    "Next two races will tell the tale. 
    "Anything can happen.  We could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer is your champion.  You never know.
    "We have to be the best to be the champions.  I think we're showing we're in form."


   It was not an easy afternoon for Jimmie Johnson (48), here dodging Juan Pablo Montoya (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The charge began, Johnson says, at Indianapolis, in late July, which he called "a good landmark weekend for us.
   "We were around it, hitting on things.  But starting at Indy, everything started clicking really, really well for us.
    "I feel as focused and prepared as I've ever been in my career."
    However Johnson insists "I have no expectations.  That's something that I carried on my shoulders last year.  I guess part of the pressure I've spoken about was gone after losing last year's championship.
   "This year has been a lot different.  The pressure is there; the pressure is always there.  You can't hide from it.  But it's different. 
    "It's more about me doing the best job I can, and this team doing the best job it can...rather than keeping a streak alive.
      "I really like the purity of our desire right now.  It's coming from a really good place."

  Jimmie at the finish line, though just barely ahead of runner-up Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    While Keselowski and Wolfe keep surprising, and keep hanging in there, it is obvious that Rick Hendrick's Chevrolet operation is operating at peak performance down the stretch.
    Hendrick's four teams had a great day, at one time holding four of the top eight positions. Kasey Kahne wound up third, surviving the late race crunch that dropped Jeff Gordon to seventh.
    Gordon, Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer had the four strongest cars all day. And at the end Bowyer and Gordon got into it a bit.
    "We were on the outside, and we were sitting ducks," Gordon said. "I was just trying to get down (to the inside lane). I felt like I got down in front of him... but maybe I didn't. I don't know; I haven't seen the video. 
    "Pretty typical Martinsville with Clint Bowyer...it's not the first time.  I like Clint a lot; we race really hard together, and we were just racing hard right there."
   Bowyer, third now in the title hunt, 26 points down -- about the difference between a win and a 23rd place run on any given Sunday -- was in the chase for victory Sunday most of the warm but overcast afternoon, in front of a crowd estimated at 60,000.
   And Bowyer wasn't very happy with Gordon, who is out of the title hunt.
    "I was doortodoor with him, and he turned left to block me...but I was already there," Bowyer said. "I hit the brakes... and I hit him so hard to try to stay off of him.
    "I was there, and he just kept turning left on me.  I was like 'Hey, you better not do that.'
   "We had a car capable of winning.  But we lost track position when they beat us out of the pits, and I never could regain it."
     Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his first start after sitting out two weeks recovering from two concussions, ran a solid top-10 all day, and was second on the final restart, after skipping the final round of pit stops. And worn tires were apparently an issue. Carl Edwards spun and collected Earnhardt, and Earnhardt finished 21st. Edwards came over to explain the situation afterwards to Earnhardt.
    The day, Earnhardt said was just "alright.  We didn't have a really good car and fought some issues all day long. 
    "Just made some poor choices at the end that got us run over."
    Earnhardt said he felt good in the car. "I was just really pissed off about how we finished that race.  That was really ridiculous.  I mean you've got to use a little common sense. That was not a good move."


  Martinsville Speedway: the malestrum Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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