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NASCAR NOTES : Martin alive in Sprint Cup Series

November 13, 2009|Jim Peltz

AVONDALE, ARIZ. — What was expected to be Jimmie Johnson's coronation in the desert is back to being a bona fide chase for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series championship.

Johnson was cruising toward a record fourth consecutive Cup title -- it was widely assumed that he would clinch the title at Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway -- but that was before last weekend's race in Texas.

The crash of Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet three laps into the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway relegated him to a 38th-place finish, and his point lead over teammate Mark Martin in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff was slashed to 73 points from 184.

That's still a sizable hurdle for Martin to overcome if the 50-year-old veteran hopes to capture his first championship after being runner-up to the series title winner four times in his long career.

Qualifying is scheduled today to set the 43-car field for Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at the one-mile Phoenix International oval.

The challenge for Martin is even more daunting when one considers that Johnson has won three of the last four races here.

But it was Martin who won the other race, last April, the first of five victories Martin has enjoyed this season driving the No. 5 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports.

So even though Johnson remains the favorite to win his fourth championship with only two Chase races left -- Sunday's race here and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida on Nov. 22 -- Martin has a much better shot at catching Johnson than he did a week ago.

"There's a lot of pressure on the 48 team right now because of what happened last week," said Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle, who is seventh in the Chase standings. "[Johnson] still has a fairly significant lead, but there's a lot of pressure on him and Mark runs very well at these last two racetracks."

Jeff Gordon, the four-time champion who also drives for Hendrick, also gained ground on Johnson in Texas but missed an opportunity to move dramatically closer to the Chase lead after Johnson's misfortune.

Gordon had arrived at Texas Motor Speedway third in the 12-driver Chase, 192 points behind Johnson.

But Gordon also struggled in the Dickies 500 and finished 13th, so he's still a distant 112 points behind Johnson.

Even so, "there are still two races to go and still things that can happen," Martin said. "I don't know why everybody tries to cap this thing out and doesn't wait and watch."

That said, Johnson remained optimistic about hoisting another Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead-Miami.

"We still have a nice lead and we'll take it from here," Johnson said after the Texas race, even though his crash left him "definitely disappointed. I felt like at least we could stretch the [point] margin or keep it like it was.

"We're still in a great position and we'll go to Phoenix and race."

Johnson has all but wrapped up his previous two Chase titles with victories in the fall race at Phoenix International.

And in NASCAR's other series ...

Kyle Busch, sitting atop a 272-point lead over Carl Edwards in the second-tier Nationwide Series, could clinch that series title at Phoenix International if he retains a lead of at least 195 points after Saturday's race.

And Ron Hornaday Jr. could wrap up a record fourth championship in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series after tonight's race here.

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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