Crash opens window of opportunity for Martin
FORT WORTH, Texas – For three years it’s been smooth sailing for Jimmie Johnson in the Chase. No accidents. No blown engines. No running out of gas. None of those “racing deals” that had befallen each and every one of his opponents during his three-, going on four-year reign.
So when Sam Hornish Jr. slammed into Johnson just three laps into Sunday’s Dickies 500, a window finally opened. The question, as Johnson sat parked in his wrecked car for nearly an hour as his crew tried to fix it and get him back on the track, was whether his closest challengers could take advantage.
Martin wheeled a mediocre car to a fourth-place finish to keep his dim title hopes alive, while Gordon, the pole sitter, limped home a disappointing 13th.
Either way, Johnson’s bad luck allowed NASCAR to breathe a sigh of relief. Because even though the title is still very much in Johnson’s hands, the probability of him clinching the championship next weekend in Phoenix has gone from all but certain to unlikely, meaning the season finale in Miami should still mean something.
“All along we’ve been trying to tell everybody that this thing is far from over,” Johnson said after finishing a season-low 38th. “Luckily we’ve raced for every point throughout this Chase and we still have a decent points lead right now. We’ll dust ourselves off in Phoenix and get a good one there.”
Johnson’s lead over Martin shrunk from 184 points to 73, though it could have been worse (or better, depending on your perspective). The moment Johnson wrecked, Gordon, who was leading at the time, moved from 192 points behind to just 34 points down.
But Gordon couldn’t hold it. He fell back after a slow pit stop, battled an ill-handling car that he and his crew could never get right, at one point got spun out and ended the race 112 points back. He made up a chunk but probably not enough to finally claim his fifth title.
“I am just really disappointed in this day,” Gordon said. “A total missed opportunity that completely got away from us. We just didn’t have it today.”
On the flip side, Johnson’s crew took what initially looked like a completely destroyed race car and repaired it enough to get him back on the track, where he picked up five spots, translating into 15 extra points.
Now, with two races to go, the Chase will likely be a battle between two drivers – Johnson, the three-time defending champ, and Martin, arguably the best driver never to have won a title.
Gordon probably has too much ground to make up, as does Kurt Busch, who has to be wondering to himself, “What if?” After saving just enough fuel to win Sunday’s race, Busch moved to within 171 points of Johnson, a deficit that would be about 70 points less if he hadn’t wrecked with just two laps to go in last Sunday’s race at Talladega.
“I’m kicking myself for what happened to us last week,” Busch said after Sunday’s win. “Running sixth place with a lap and a half to go, I put the car on the hauler at 30th. I didn’t do my job last weekend. We find ourselves too far behind.”
Busch, sitting next to team owner Roger Penske, was being diplomatic. He didn’t want to sound bitter, as he did a week ago, when talking about an incident sparked by Brad Keselowski, the driver Penske hired to be Busch’s new teammate.
“What’s wrong with that [expletive] kid?” Busch screamed over his radio immediately after the wreck. “You hired yourself a true champ, Roger. I don’t think we’re going to work together at all.”
On Friday, Busch said that he and Keselowski have worked out their differences. Regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that Keselowski essentially crushed Busch’s title hopes.
So with two races to go, who has the edge between Johnson and Martin?
Both drivers are very good at Phoenix. Martin won there back in April, while Johnson won the three races there prior to that. The finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is a toss-up.
“I don’t know why everybody tries to cap this thing out and doesn’t just wait and watch,” Martin said. “There are still two races to go and still things that can happen.”
The thing is, things hadn’t happened, at least not to Johnson, dating back to a wreck at Talladega on Oct. 8, 2006 – a span of 33 Chase races. Then Hornish got loose and turned into a bullet Johnson couldn’t dodge.
In the end, it may only turn out to be a flesh wound, but for the first time in three years, the man Martin calls Superman turned out to be mortal, and because of it, the 2009 Chase received a temporary stay of execution.