Monday, March 30, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: This Johnson win was better than the rest

MARTINSVILLE -- So a few knuckleheads threw cans at the car as it made the victory lap. Those were the exceptions. Most fans stood and applauded in appreciation when it ended, and they should have.

If Jimmie Johnson didn't earn their respect on this day, he never will.

Johnson didn't win Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway because of fuel mileage or late pit strategy or luck.

He won it because he is a champion, and every choice he had to make, he made correctly.

He won it by outdueling his own decorated teammate and a young short-track ace. He won it with intelligence, patience and -- ultimately -- some well-timed aggression. Overall, it was his finest effort at a place he's long dominated, even more impressive than the memorable duel with Jeff Gordon two years ago.

By now, you know the numbers. That's five wins in the past six Martinsville races for Johnson. That's his sixth win here overall.

But the key number in this one was 30. That's how far back in the field Johnson dropped early in the race.

Rain washed out all of Saturday's practice, and the effects of that showed immediately. Johnson's team is among the best at setting up a car for this challenging track, but the guys whiffed this time.

"The new tire threw everybody for a loop," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief.

Forget the hot rod we're used to seeing; Johnson looked like he'd be lucky to finish in the top five.

So before the race turned 100 laps old, he pitted. Twice.

"We opted to lose track position and to work on the car," Johnson said.

Losing a little track position is one thing, but 30th? That's Robby Gordon territory. At this track especially, that's a dangerous place to be. Mismanage the adjustments and soon you'll be a lap down. Even if you nail every change, you're exponentially more prone to be collected in one of those head-scratcher spin-outs that drivers in the rear of the field seem to produce.

If Johnson was going to win this one -- or even if he was going to come close to his average finish here of 5.6 -- he would have to earn it.

While last October's result seemed monotonous, just another boring notch on Johnson's belt, Sunday's effort thrilled. He nearly burned the tires off the car trying to weave his way to the front, negotiating lapped traffic and slicing his way past contenders.

By the midway point of the 500-lap race, Johnson already had broken into the top 10. Yet he remained an afterthought. Up front sped two great storylines -- Denny Hamlin, the Virginian who won this race last spring and hadn't returned to Victory Lane since; and Jeff Gordon, the seven-time winner here who hasn't taken the checkered flag in a points race since October 2007.

As Johnson advanced, anxiety kicked in -- a rarity for him here.

"I saw guys blowing right-front tires, and I got nervous a few times because I had my stuff really hot," he said. "But that's what you have to do to get through traffic, and, luckily, everything stayed on the car today."

Not without a few savvy moves, though. When Hamlin darted inside Johnson on a restart and took the lead on lap 456, Johnson had the wherewithal to let him go rather than panic and pinch him, a move that could have doomed them both.

With 16 laps to go, Johnson pounced on the inside of Hamlin heading into turn 3. The two cars collided, and Hamlin's fishtailed up near the wall. Johnson maintained control and took the lead.

From there, it was typical Martinsville -- Jimmie Johnson up front, everybody else chasing. But everything before that point was special. That's why most fans stood and cheered a little longer than usual, showing their appreciation.

And as they packed up and left this place, all that remained were the spiralling tire tracks on the frontstretch, the remnants of another Johnson burnout.

He'd left his mark here, again, more impressively this time than ever.

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