KANSAS CITY, KAN. — NASCAR's title playoff moves to the nation's heartland this weekend with everyone bracing for another of Jimmie Johnson's trademark late-season assaults -- none more so than his teammate, Mark Martin.
Martin, the 50-year-old veteran and sentimental favorite to win his first championship, holds a skimpy 10-point lead over Johnson ahead of Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway, the third race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Johnson, an El Cajon, Calif., native trying to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup title, moved closer to Martin with a dominant win last Sunday.
Juan Pablo Montoya is third, 65 points behind Martin. Former champion Kurt Busch is fourth, 75 points back, and two-time title winner Tony Stewart trails by 106 points in fifth.
Qualifying is scheduled today to set the 43-car field for the Price Chopper 400 at the 1.5-mile Kansas oval just west of Kansas City, Mo.
Martin, who came out of semi-retirement to join Hendrick Motorsports this year, is trying to finally win a championship after being runner-up four times in his long career. Martin won at Kansas Speedway in 2005.
But Johnson is the defending winner at Kansas, where he also has five top-10 finishes in seven starts.
Johnson also is the defending winner of the fourth race in the Chase, the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 11.
Regardless, "since this Chase started, I have said that there is absolutely no way anyone can know what's going to happen until about four races to go," Martin said.
"Can you win a race and think that's it? That you could win the championship? No. And the same thing goes for having a bad finish," he said.
Another Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon, hopes the Kansas race gives him a needed lift in this year's Chase.
Gordon, a four-time champion whose titles all came before the 12-driver Chase format was implemented in 2004, is eighth in the playoff, 122 points behind Martin, after the first two Chase races. But Gordon also is the only two-time winner at Kansas.
"We are still in this thing in our mind, and [with] eight races, a lot is left to happen," Gordon said. "Ten races is a lot of laps. It's a lot of points that can be lost and gained."
Three other Chase drivers also have won at Kansas: Stewart in 2006; Ryan Newman, Stewart's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, in 2003; and Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing in 2007.
"Every week we go out and we try to lead laps and we try to win races," Stewart said. "That's what got us here. There's no reason to change that. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel."