It's back to Sunday afternoon racing this weekend as the series heads to Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., for the TUMS Fast Relief 500.
Johnson has been dominant at the .526-mile short track, winning five out of the last six races there. Johnson also won the Fall 2004 race, but never celebrated the victory after being informed that a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed on the way to the event, killing all seven people aboard.
Before Johnson assumed the title, there was another Mr. Martinsville -- Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon. Gordon leads all active drivers with seven Martinsville victories. He's within striking distance of
Johnson in the Chase standings, 135 points back, in third place.
Gordon's last win at Martinsville came in 2005, when he swept both races there. He has an average finish of 6.8 in 33 Martinsville starts, plus 21 top fives, 27 top 10s and seven poles. If Gordon wins the pole this week, he'll tie Darrell Waltrip for all-time poles at Martinsville.
Lurking even closer to Johnson is another Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, who's second in the Chase standings, 90 points behind Johnson. Martin has two wins, three poles, 11 top fives and 22 top 10s in 43 career starts at Martinsville.
There's no question that Johnson is the driver to beat, both at Martinsville and in the Chase, but the latter race is hardly over -- at least if you look at history. Johnson himself set the precedent, coming from 146 points back after the first five races of the 2006 Chase to win his first of three consecutive series titles. The largest deficit overcome with five races to go (since the 1975 advent of the current points system) is 191 points. That was the margin between Alan Kulwicki and then-leader Bill Elliott in 1992. Kulwicki rallied to win that year's title by 10 points -- the second-closest title margin in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history.
As if the top three drivers, all from Hendrick Motorsports, don't have enough at stake this weekend, a victory for one of them -- or Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver -- will tie Petty Enterprises for most owner victories at Martinsville at 19.
With Earnhardt's tough season winding down, he said he likes his chances this week. "We've had some pretty good runs at Martinsville, and I like racing on the short tracks. ... I think we've got a good shot," Earnhardt said.
Ellen Siska writes about NASCAR for The York Dis patch. She can be reached at esiska@yorkdis patch.com. Read her blog, "Pitting Outside the Box," at the Blogzone at yorkdis patch.com.