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Caraviello: Johnson's hopes for title No. 6 come down to Martinsville

October 27, 2011, David Caraviello,

Champion's hopes for sixth consecutive title come down to Martinsville

Jimmie Johnson has always been a realist, understanding perhaps better than anyone that the time will come when his seemingly endless championship reign indeed draws to an end. And yet, given all we've seen from that No. 48 program during the past five years -- all the race wins, all the comebacks, all the clutch performances, all the boot-on-their-throat moments that left the competition staggered and Johnson steaming toward yet another crown -- it's somewhat stunning to look at the Sprint Cup standings, look at the races remaining on the schedule, and come to one inevitable conclusion.

This is it.

Jimmie Johnson

Career stats (full season)
YearWinsT5T10Laps LedPts. Rank
'03 3 14 20 644 2
'04 8 20 23 1,312 2
'05 4 13 22 547 5
'065 13 24854 1
'07 10 20 24 1,2901
'08 7 15 22 1,959 1
'09 7 16 24 2,2381
'10 6 17 23 1,315 1
'11 2 13 20 1,0517

Because it is. Without question, Sunday at little Martinsville Speedway shapes up as Jimmie Johnson's last stand, the final gasp of his championship run, the one remaining Hail Mary opportunity to try and keep alive hopes of title No. 6. No question, we've seen him do the near-impossible before, rallying from 156 points down with six events left to claim his first championship in 2006, using guile and pit strategy to stay in the hunt in the penultimate race of last year. We've come to expect that kind of thing from Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, to never rule them out. Just look what happened three weeks ago at Kansas, when Johnson won to pull himself back from the brink, and those old, familiar feelings began to rise up and leave some a little wobbly in the knees.

But we're not in Kansas anymore. For Johnson the situation is beyond dire, to the point where if this was any other driver, he wouldn't even be in the conversation. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. waited too long to try and make their move from the back of the pack Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, the five-time champ finished 26th, and Johnson fell a dispiriting 50 points behind leader Carl Edwards with just four events to go. According to NASCAR, that gap translates to roughly a 208-point chasm under the old system. The largest deficit ever overcome with four races remaining is 144, done by Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Those are daunting numbers, statistics that not even Johnson will likely be able to overcome. With four races remaining in his epic comeback of 2006, he had already made up roughly three-fourths of his monstrous original deficit. Even in 2005, the last year Johnson didn't win the championship, he was in much better shape at this point, hanging close with eventual titlist Tony Stewart right until the final weekend. This is uncharted territory, the kind of terra obscura that threatens to not only end Johnson's championship reign, but also halt his streak of finishing inside the top five in every full-time season of his career at NASCAR's premier level.

These are desperate times, of the type Johnson has never really faced before. Two things work in his favor: the fact that he's never really desperate at all, given how his pragmatic big-picture outlook helps him keep his wits about him; and the fact that his Alamo is Martinsville, his best track, and a place where he's won six times. One of Johnson's strengths is his ability to stay unruffled, a character trait surely born out of the five championships in his hip pocket, and the knowledge that he has nothing left to prove. He's been playing with house money for a long time, and he knows it, which is why he's able to reach such a peace with the fact that his title run is eventually going to end. In some ways, Johnson will enter the most pressure-packed race of his season with absolutely no pressure on him at all.

And then there's Martinsville, that little paper clip in southern Virginia, where Johnson has an average finish of 5.6 and has placed outside the top 10 just twice in 19 career starts there. In the Chase, he's been particularly dominant -- an average finish of second, four victories, and a lowest result of fifth. He'll be driving the same chassis he used to finish 11th in Martinsville's spring race, which was his worst outing since his debut there in his rookie season of 2002.

"Quirky tracks have always worked for me, and this track certainly is that," Johnson said. "When I first came here, the first year or year and a half, there was no way I thought this track would be one that I liked. But in time, and in learning how to drive it, there is just one way to really get around here. And a lot of tracks have a lot of other options, but there's one very specific line you have to run, and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years. And that's what Denny [Hamlin] has been able to do, and what we've been able to do, and Jeff [Gordon] has done. So I really think it falls into that category. You go to a big track and there are three or four lanes to run on, you can move around and find somewhere that works for your setup if you missed it, [and] for your own driving style. That's not the case here. There's one way to drive this place, and that's it."

Those attempting to end Johnson's reign evidently haven't figured that out, as their far less-stellar results signify. Edwards has an average finish of 16.9 at Martinsville, and has led just three laps in 14 starts on the short track. Edwards' Roush Fenway teammate, second-place Matt Kenseth, has only two top-five finishes in 23 career starts there. No Ford driver has won at Martinsville since ex-Rousher Kurt Busch did it in 2002, and Edwards believes his top-10 in the spring was a mirage.

"Eighth place was a gift. We should have been 15th or 20th, so I'm a little nervous about Martinsville," he said. "If we can find some things, if we can pick up just a tiny bit of speed there, we'll be good. But otherwise, that's going to be one of the tracks we go to and just fight and claw for a top-10. That's how it usually is for me there."

But that might be enough for Edwards (or whomever may emerge at the top of the standings late Sunday afternoon) to effectively close out Johnson. In all likelihood, Johnson probably needs to slice something in the neighborhood of 20 points off his deficit to keep himself in the shadowy edges of title contention going forward, particularly given how strong the Roush cars traditionally are at Texas and Homestead. But Edwards has been very good during his current, almost Johnsonesque run of nine consecutive finishes of 11th or better, and the idea that Johnson can simply out-point the leader by such a wide margin stretches the imagination. More than likely, he's going to need Edwards to have trouble, which at Martinsville is surely a possibility, but also is never a guarantee.

If the status quo remains, though, the march toward a new champion will begin, and the final days of Johnson's historic run of consecutive titles will begin to tick by. In some ways, it's difficult to believe that such a sustained stretch of greatness can come to an end. In others, though, we should have seen it coming. Johnson won his fifth title in his most vulnerable season, when Hendrick was a little down as an organization, the cars weren't always fast enough, and the driver hoisted everyone onto his shoulders and carried them to the head table at Las Vegas. One pit call at Phoenix goes the wrong way, and Johnson's reign ends in 2010. And then there's this year, when the wins never came with regularity, and the familiar killer instinct never quite materialized. If Johnson doesn't win Sunday, it will mark his first season without a short-track victory since 2005. If he doesn't win the rest of the way, he'll snap a seven-year streak of at least three race victories.

It took time, but the field finally caught up with the No. 48 team. Barring a miracle comeback to top all miracle comebacks, the next step will be to see how Johnson and his team rebound. The last time he didn't win a title, 2005, relations grew so fractious between Johnson and Knaus that Rick Hendrick had to sit them down and give them a talking-to. Dale Jarrett finished inside the top five in points for six consecutive years at the peak of his career, and once that streak ended, he won only twice more. Johnson is still too young, and too good, and has too much quality support around him to plummet like that. But no one knows what might happen next.

And that next stage of Johnson's career is coming, as sure as the grandstands of Martinsville Speedway loom in the distance. He's still Five-Time, he still carries that enviable combination of just enough cool and just enough swagger, he's still capable of winning anywhere on any weekend. But the schedule and the point standings leave him zero room for error. Four races still remain in this Sprint Cup season, but for Jimmie Johnson, Sunday at Martinsville represents the last stand.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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