Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Johnson set up to make run at championship

MARTINSVILLE - Brad Keselowski can say whatever he wants. That he doesn't feel the pressure. That he likes his position. That he's confident he's going to run well today at Martinsville Speedway and leave here like arrived - with the Sprint Cup points lead.

Maybe. That's what he's supposed to say. But he'd be wise not to think too hard about it.

Today sets up for the challengers.

Jimmie Johnson is one of the best closers in sports. He doesn't blow opportunities like this, running at a track he loves, especially when he's starting on the pole and gets to choose his pit stall.

The five-time champion isn't having his most dominant season, yet there he is, just seven points back of Keselowski.

He's coming.

"During different parts of the season, it's an honor to lead the points," said Johnson, who has plenty of experience doing that. "That honor is still there right now, but that light at the end of the tunnel is becoming much more vivid.

"There's a picture there at the end of that tunnel, and that pressure starts to set in."

Pressure is nothing to Johnson. He's faced it, accepted it, conquered it. His demeanor this week has been the same as it always is here. He's relaxed, because he knows he's the man to beat.

Johnson's average finish at Martinsville is a ridiculous 5.8. He has won here six times, and it easily could have been seven. Johnson was battling Jeff Gordon for the win here in the spring until a late wreck dropped him to 12th - his worst finish at this track since his Martinsville debut in 2002.

But it's not just the track that gives Johnson the edge. It's also his pedigree of performing in big spots.

"They know how to step up," Jeff Gordon said of the No. 48 team. "I'm not putting my money on anybody, but I think they are going to be very difficult to beat. When they are in contention, they rarely ever give it up."

And what if, hypothetically, Johnson's team does? Keselowski hardly could relax. That just opens the door for Denny Hamlin, who's lurking 20 points back in third place.

He has won four times here and has an average Martinsville finish of 6.4. He won Saturday's Trucks Series race and has an excellent crew chief in Darian Grubb, the Floyd native who guided Tony Stewart to victory lane here last fall with a series of gutsy calls.

Hamlin's just fine with any notion that the championship is a two-man race.

"We don't deserve to be in the conversation right now," Hamlin said. "And until we get within 10 points, they can leave us out of everything."

That easily could happen today.

"We need to win races and we know it," Hamlin said. "Ultimately, if we finish outside of the top five then there's something wrong - something wrong with the car, something wrong with me. You come here and you expect to go up there and challenge for race wins."

Johnson does, too, of course. Keselowski? He has only one top-10 finish in five starts here.

Getting around Martinsville well is all about rhythm, about breaking at the right times and building speed coming off the tight corners so you can accelerate on the straightaways. Learning how to do that takes time.

Johnson didn't figure it out until he got lapped by Stewart years ago.

"Following him just turned the light switch on in my head as to what to do around here," Johnson said. "I was able to keep pace with him and get a lap back and have a decent finish that day. That really set things in motion for me."

These days, he isn't following anybody around.

"You've got to stay aggressive," Johnson said. "You can't protect and you can't conserve at this stage. It's all about living on that ragged edge."

Spoken like a veteran who knows: Today could be his launching point toward title No. 6.

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