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One year later after battling “Smoke” (Tony Stewart) for the win and the championship, Johnson returns to the .526-mile paperclip-shaped Martinsville oval for Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 having established himself as a clear contender for this year’s title. Currently second in points, he would like nothing more than to add to his grandfather clock collection (the race trophy) as he returns to the smallest track on the circuit but from where his trophy haul is arguably the biggest. Johnson has six wins in 21 Martinsville starts and owns the highest driver rating in the series (121.4 average of a possible 150 points).
Most impressive is his consistency in top-10 finishes. In 21 races run at Martinsville, he has finished outside the top-10 only three times – a 35th-place finish in his first race in April 2002, an 11th-place run last April and a 12th-place finish earlier this year. Johnson credits watching his teammate Jeff Gordon make laps at the paper clip-shaped oval with helping him figure out what he needed to do to “get around the track better.” His 14 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes should put to rest any doubts that the five-time champion has figured it out.
With a six-pack (what Johnson has dubbed his run for a sixth title) on the line, Johnson knows he doesn’t need another grandfather clock to tell him time is running out to accomplish just that. Not getting “Smoked” this time at Martinsville would certainly help. Read Johnson’s thoughts leading into this weekend:
On going to Martinsville:
“I feel good. I really do. The track in practice and qualifying; the track isn’t what we race. If anything, we get a little frustrated through practice and then our qualifying effort usually isn’t what we want. But, when they drop the green flag and we are racing, we usually go the right direction and I know it’s been a good track for us. It’s also good for the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) and the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin). The No. 29 (Kevin Harvick) should be strong there, too, but he’s a bit back in points and I guess the No. 24 is, too. But there’s maybe a chance to pick some (points) up on the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski). I’m not sure what his record is there but I don’t remember seeing him up front a lot, so there might be a good opportunity. But, at the same time, I don’t want to count those guys out. They’ve shown up each and every weekend and shown a lot of speed in a lot of situations. I’m excited for it, but I know a couple of other guys are, too.”
Are you looking forward to racing at Martinsville this weekend?
“Yeah, I am. It should be a good track for us. We did the 2013 test a month or so ago, so we’ve been on the track recently. And, granted, the cars aren’t the same so it will be different, but at least we’ve had some laps on the track. We’ve done a little short-track testing that should pay off and make us more competitive. So, as excited as I am, I know also that the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) is and I have to assume the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) is pretty charged up to go. But, either way, I feel like it’s a good opportunity for us to get points and, hopefully if we’re not in the points lead, we can get awfully close to it or take it there.”
What makes you so good at Martinsville? Your rhythm? Your style? What?
“I wouldn’t say the rhythm fits, and it took me a while to sort it out. But I do well on low-grip tracks and that track doesn’t have much grip, and you really have to drive the car and finesse it in some ways and then attack in others. It took me actually getting lapped by Tony Stewart years ago, and then following him after he lapped me, and the light went off in my head. I went, ‘Oh, that’s how I’m supposed to get around this place.’ And since, I’ve been good.”