Johnson aware of the pack

By Hank Kurz Jr.
Associated Press / October 25, 2009

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Jimmie Johnson hears the chatter in the garage and knows that some of his fellow drivers have grown weary of seeing him win races and championships.

And why not? He’s won 23 races in the past three seasons, and claimed the points championship each year, too, becoming the only driver other than Cale Yarborough to win three straight.

And he’s probably not done. Johnson takes a 90-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin into today’s race on the paper clip-shaped oval of Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson does some of his best work. He’s has won five of the last six races here, including the last three in the fall during NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs.

“I pick that up from time to time with the guys,’’ he said of a feeling they have grown frustrated by his relentless success, “but in the end I’m really just trying to focus on trying to do my job and not spend time worrying about what other people are thinking.’’

What some of them are thinking, though, is pretty impressive. Martin has referred to Johnson as “Superman,’’ and said he thinks Johnson would have fared well in stock car racing’s rough-and-tumble days. “Had he been here with me when I was racing Dale Earnhardt in the early ’90s for the title, I think Jimmie would have held his ground,’’ Martin said.

Johnson will start 15th today, and while there is an undeniable sense that he’s making his move toward a record fourth consecutive title, Martin isn’t conceding with five races remaining.

“I’m going to race him for it,’’ Martin said. “I’m not giving up, not one bit.’’

Nor is Jeff Gordon, the Hendrick team’s other Chase driver. The four-time Sprint Cup champion is in third 45 points behind Martin.

Gordon will be starting behind Ryan Newman, won the pole Friday with a lap at 96.795 miles per hour. Martin will start fourth, giving Hendrick Motorsports two cars in the front two rows.

Carl Edwards, who was slowed earlier this season when he injured a foot playing Frisbee, joked that he wanted to invite Johnson out for a game Friday, just to try to slow him down somehow. Edwards is 10th in the points and essentially out of contention.

“Right now, they’re just unbelievable,’’ he said. “The way those guys run, you’d spin the guy out and he would back in the wall and they’d fix it and he’d come back and win anyway.’’

That luck can change, though. Just ask Kurt Busch, who is in fifth, 177 points off Johnson’s pace. In 2004, Busch had a 92-point lead heading to Atlanta for the 33d of 36 races. “We blew an engine, and that lead blew up in smoke,’’ he said. “Anything can happen.’’

Busch relinquished his points lead that day, but wound up winning the championship by 8 points. The guy he passed to claim his only title? Jimmie Johnson.