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Jimmie Johnson looking to gain on Brad Keselowski in Sunday's Martinsville 500, and Five-Time is on the pole, BradK only 32nd

Jimmie Johnson looking to gain on Brad Keselowski in Sunday's Martinsville 500, and Five-Time is on the pole, BradK only 32nd

Now the final moments of the spring Martinsville race looked like this. Can you remember what happened next? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

   Jimmie Johnson appears to have things well in hand in this season's championship battle:
   With just four races to go, Mr. Five-Time is only seven points -- about seven finishing positions on any given Sunday -- behind tour leader Brad Keselowski.
   And challenger Denny Hamlin, after a mediocre 13th at Kansas, that puts him 20 points down, may need to step it up here in Sunday's Martinsville 500.
   Of course this is a great track for Hamlin. In his seven playoff runs here, he's got a blazing hot 4.0 finishing average.
   Uh, unfortunately Johnson has an even better chase record here though -- in his eight chase races Johnson has a stunning 2.0 finishing average. That's four wins, two seconds, a third, and a fifth.
   And if Hamlin and Johnson finish 1-2, or 2-1, as is quite likely, that's no big gain for Hamlin.
   Keselowski has been supremely confident throughout the chase, and he's led right from the start. Still, this hasn't been a great track for him; his best finish ever at this flat half-mile is only ninth.
    And last fall Keselowski fell out of the title chase at this place when he got caught up, however innocently, in that run-in between Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth.
   Jeff Gordon, who has one of the best career records here and who could easily finish top-three or win, says he's not ready to put money on anyone yet. But Gordon says "It's hard to go against Jimmie. That team is pretty stout.  They know how to step up. They are going to be very difficult to beat.  When they are in contention, they rarely ever give it up."
   And the clutch repair work by Chad Knaus' crew on Johnson's damaged car last weekend at Kanas City was breathtaking. It could easily have been the repair job that saved this championship.
   Johnson could easily have won Kansas, but when he made a routine pit stop just before a caution came out, he was trapped back in the pack. And Johnson backed it into the wall while trying to play catch-up.
   At that point Johnson seemed doomed to finish no better than 20th, and probably worse.
   But clutch work by Knaus saved the day, and Johnson came home ninth, just one spot behind Keselowski. So the top two title contenders wound up playing to a draw.
   Johnson doesn't sandbag his way to all these titles. He plays it very aggressively...and that in turn forces his competition, or rather what is left of it this season, to step it up too. And that's the way this game should be played.
"Everybody makes mistakes, and I would rather side on the aggressive side," Johnson says, "because I know what my competition is. I know Brad is certainly racing that way, and Denny  is as well.
    "You've got to stay aggressive. You can't protect, and you can't conserve at this stage. It's all about living on that ragged edge."

   "I don't enjoy qualifying like crap," Keselowski grumbled after qualifying a very poor 32nd for Sunday's 500 (1:30 p.m. ET).

   Johnson's on the pole, and that means Keselowski could well be lapped early in the race. The pressure now is on his crew chief Paul Wolfe to come up with a new game plan.

   "I feel confident it will work its way out here," Keselowski said. "We have a lot of tools in our tool box."


   Jimmie Johnson is looking pretty confident about the final four races of the championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   That repair job at Kansas is looming very big in this title game.
    "When you get to the end of the year, the teams that are fighting for the championship are there for a reason," Johnson says. "It is a team sport. It's not just the driver getting the job done in the car. It's the people preparing the cars, it's the pit stops, it's crisis management...
    "Last weekend -- I would expect that out of any top team... and I certainly expect it out of my team. They exceeded expectation with how well the car performed after the wreck; but I would assume other teams are capable of doing that too at this stage of the game."

    Johnson fully realizes that repair job was big. How big?
   "We will have to wait until Homestead to see where that fits into the story," he says.
    "In one light, I look at it and think I made a mistake and gave up points. I really felt we could have won the race.
    "It was a day that Brad wasn't leading, or running top-two or three. And we could have closed the points up, if not got ahead.
     "I hope it's a story that we preserved the championship, minimized the damage, and minimized the loss.
     "At the same time, I still regret I didn't take advantage of that opportunity."

      Pressure? Well, Johnson and Knaus have again shown they can perform in the clutch.
      How about Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe? They've made some great calls this season. How well will they perform when it's a down-day?
     "The points leader, I think, has the most pressure," Johnson says. "I like being in that position because you are still in control.
    "During different parts of the season it's an 'honor' to lead the points. That honor is still there right now, but that light at the end of the tunnel is becoming much more vivid --- There's a picture at the end of that tunnel, and that pressure starts to set in."

    By the numbers, Johnson sizes up this weekend's Round Seven this way:
   "The way everybody is running, you might get a point or two," he says,  referring to a very small gain or loss. "If you're fortunate enough to win, you'll get three points on a guy.
    "That's where my disappointment last week comes into play -- I feel I could have gotten a good chunk on Brad and Denny.
    "Here, the way we're sitting in points, I would hope to get a handful of points on Brad.
     "Denny: I got a few points on him last week, so if I gave up a few here, it wouldn't be that big a deal.
     "I really think, going down the stretch, it's going to be a game of a few points at a time.
     "If I lose a little to Denny, it's not what I want; but I got a few last week. And if I'm able to gain some on Brad, that's what we should do here."




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