2008-10-23 / Sports

Johnson Dominates At Martinsville

By Gerald Hodges THE RACING REPORTER

Jimmie Johnson Jimmie Johnson MARTINSVILLE, Va.- Jimmie Johnson's Sunday win at Martinsville has put him well on the way to a third consecutive Cup title.

Johnson completely dominated the 500-lap race, leading seven times for 339 laps for his sixth win of the season.

"This track has been good to me," said Johnson. "What a car we had today. We don't want to think about winning the championship for another two or three races, but it's getting closer."

Johnson expanded his lead in the points to 149 over second-place driver Greg Biffle.

Jeff Burton, who entered the day second in the standings and 69 points behind Johnson, was in contention for a top-10 finish before a late penalty for pitting outside his box.

He was penalized a lap and fell to third in points, three behind Biffle.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had one of his best runs of the year by finishing second.

"It was a day when nothing seemed to bite us," said Earnhardt. "We didn't have any tires blow out, and I was able to stay out of trouble. We have some scrapes on the left side of the car, but the right side is clean.

"It was one of our best days. We didn't have anything for Jimmie, but we still had a good racecar."

Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Casey Mears, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top-10 finishers.

Top-12 Chase contenders with four remaining races: 1. Johnson- 6073, 2. Biffle-5924, 3. Burton-5921, 4. Edwards-5875, 5. Bowyer-5827, 6. Harvick-5817, 7. J. Gordon-5798, 8. Stewart-5735, 9. Earnhardt-5694, 10. Kenseth-5665, 11. Hamlin-5653, 12. Kyle Busch-5628

Top-10 Craftsman Truck Series leaders after 21 of 25: 1. Benson-3178, 2. Hornaday-3113, 3. Crafton-2951, 4. Bodine-2946, 5. Skinner-2896, 6. Darnell 2877, 7. Crawford-2856, 8. Setzer 2694, 9. Sprague-2668, 10. Cook- 2575

What's with Dale Jr.?

Great things were expected from Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season.

"I'm not going to put a number on how many races we're going to win, but I'd say four would be a good number," said his crew chief Tony Eury Jr. prior to the start of the 2008 season.

But after 31 races into the season, he has only one win and that came while he was leading the rainshortened Lifelock 400 at Michigan.

Earnhardt Jr. has had even less success in the Chase, struggling after finishing fifth in the opening race at New Hampshire. Since then, he's been 24th, 13th, 28th, and 36th after crashing at Charlotte.

The frustrations of crew chief Tony Eury Jr. could be heard over the team's radios just after Earnhardt Jr. drilled the wall off turn 2 last week at Charlotte.

"Unbelievable," Eury Jr. said. "The things that have happened to us."

His chances at the 2008 Sprint Cup championship after Charlotte went from slim to none, as he is 10th in points, 354 behind the leader, going to Martinsville.

During the New Hampshire race, Earnhardt threw what some writers in the media center called a temper tantrum, and began a profanitylaced tirade on his radio, after getting a bad set of tires.

As Earnhardt Jr. exploded, his team owner Rick Hendrick attempted to calm him down. It was the third consecutive week Hendrick was on Earnhardt Jr.'s radio trying to tell him everything will work out OK.

"Once I'm on the edge, it's hard to get me off of it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I like getting riled up. It motivates me. I drive better when I'm ticked off."

As NASCAR's most popular driver and the son of a seven-time Cup champion, there will always be pressure to perform and win races and live up to the expectations of his legions of supporters.

"You can never live up to those," he said. "I wouldn't expect to. But I expect to be able to lead. I'm not a follower."

"We've had so much pressure this year. At the start of the season, it was really hard to concentrate. Things kind of cooled off and everything mellowed a little bit."

"I don't feel like we're underestimated. We know we got work to do. We definitely don't have an argument that we're as strong as the top three guys but we got the tools, we've got the ability to be there."

"There's a lot of pressure on all of us and I don't think it's probably any different for anybody else, and it's just how good you handle it," he said. "If you allow it to become a bigger problem than it truly is in reality, then that's not going to help you any."

"I wouldn't change it, I love it. I love the pressure. That means I'm in the middle of it."

Now this.

When your name is Dale Earnhardt Jr., everything you do is magnified. Your wins. Your losses. Your on-track performance. Your off track performance.

When Earnhardt changed teams last year, the announcement was carried live on national television. Everything he does is major news. A lot of fans think he is too preoccupied with his business interests, including his new Whiskey River nightclub.

But let's focus on the positive. Earnhardt Jr. has 18 career Cup victories. In all of NASCAR history, only 38 drivers have more.

There are some fans that feel he's been much more competitive with Hendrick than he was with DEI, particularly during his last season with the team.

But there are some loyal to Earnhardt Jr. who feel he has come up short with Hendrick. They feel he should have won more than one points race and one pole so far this season. He should have been able to run more aggressively, win more races and even rise to No. 1 in points.

This year decidely has not been a good one for Earnhardt Jr. Despite engine failures and several tire blowouts, Earnhardt, remains upbeat. Most of his fans like Connie C. of Colorado also remain positive.

"From the very beginning starting at Speedweek, he had a great momentum going," she said. "Right out of the gate he was proving to himself, Hendricks, and the world he was ready to get that championship. There is no question that he knows how to see "the air" just like his daddy did."

"A combination of luck, equipment, pit strategy, and consistency is needed to win this championship. I believe the bad luck and the tire blowouts are stopping this from happening. I heard Tony Jr. say he thinks it's impossible for them to get it this year. I do think he is the right crew chief for Dale even though others might disagree. He's come so close so many times. It is nice that Dale's confidence was so high this year."

Racing has changed since Dale Sr. won his seventh championship. It is more of a team effort than driver achievement. I don't see what has happened to Earnhardt's team as being entirely his fault. Things have occurred both on and off the track that weren't of his making.

Dale Jr. is a good driver. Hendrick Motorsports is one of the best teams in NASCAR. With Rick Hendrick, he has one of the best mentors in the business. Sooner of later, his luck is going to turn around. That's the nature of racing.

Let's cut him a little slack and see what next year brings.

Next week: Who's Hot and Who's Not

Weekend racing: The Craftsman Trucks and Sprint Cup teams head to Atlanta Motor Speedway, the fastest track on the circuit. The Nationwide teams are at Memphis, Tenn.

Saturday, October 25, Craftsman Trucks Atlanta 200; starting time: 1 p.m. (EST); TV: Speed.

Saturday, October 25, Nationwide Series Kroger 250; starting time: 3 p.m. (EST); TV: ESPN2.

Sunday, October 26 Sprint Cup Pep Boys Auto 500; starting time: 1 p.m.(EST); TV: ABC.

Racing trivia question: How many Cup championships did Darrell Waltrip win?

Last week's question: Where is Jeff Burton's hometown? Answer. South Boston, Va.

You may contact the Racing Reporter at: hodgesnews@earthlink.net.

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