MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Talladega, NASCAR Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Its famed "Big One" wreck is all that's left between Jimmie Johnson and a record fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title – a potential result that a huge number of fans find distasteful – as there clearly is no car nor driver capable of besting Johnson.
Denny Hamlin edged him out here Sunday at this tight track in the hills of Virginia. It hardly mattered though; Johnson finished second and extended his lead over Chase rivals Mark Martin (118 points), Jeff Gordon (150), Tony Stewart (192) and Juan Pablo Montoya (200).
With four races to go, Johnson is poised to once again make this a foregone conclusion even before the Nov. 22 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
As long as he doesn't get caught in The Big One.
"Talladega, there's no telling," Johnson said.
There's so little to tell that Johnson is sick of trying – how exactly do you discuss possibly crashing?
"I'm so tired of answering this question," he said. "We all know what the answers are. It's the same stuff over and over again. The stuff we can't control is the stuff I'm worried about. The stuff we can control, I feel we're going to be great.
"It gives everyone something to talk about but I'm tired of talking about all the what-ifs."
But Johnson has made such a mockery of the Chase for the Cup that this is all that's left. The sport's entire playoffs have boiled down to whether Johnson will get caught up in an inevitable multi-car, high-speed crash at the Alabama superspeedway. If he can't finish the race, maybe everyone else can catch up and make it interesting.
It's like starting the NBA playoffs and counting on Kobe Bryant blowing out his knee.
"The way he's running you've probably got to win next [four] races and he's got to have some bad luck," Montoya said.
Thing is, Johnson doesn't have bad luck. The old adage about how you create your luck appears to apply here.
In his last 32 Chase races, Johnson has finished in the top 15 every single time. That includes 28 top-10 finishes.
Two of his non-top 10s hardly count, since they came in the finale at Homestead where he just needed to avoid a wreck to win and, understandably, didn't press things.
There are no blown engines with Johnson. There is no getting caught up in trouble. There are no mental mistakes. You could argue he's due, but you could also argue that no driver has ever been better at avoiding trouble. It's one of the reasons he keeps winning championships.
It is worth noting that his last non-top 15 finish in a Chase race was a DNF at Talladega. It happened in 2006; Johnson was racing Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead on the last lap when Brian Vickers took both guys out.
That was three years ago, though. Still, everyone knows it's Talladega or never, because "I feel good with the other tracks after [Talladega]," Johnson said of Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
If he pops champagne just for finishing next weekend, you'd hardly blame him.
Not that Martinsville didn't try to present its own obstacles.
Johnson didn't coast around this tiny, paper-clip loop. "I bumped him a couple times," Montoya said. So did Hamlin, among others.
It didn't matter. Johnson held control and got to the front where none of the 15 cautions could affect him. He started 15th and whenever a pit stop put him deep in the pack, he would surgically sweep through the field, often picking off another car on each of the quick .536-mile laps.
On the final restart Johnson knew he didn't have the car to beat Hamlin so he didn't bother trying to muscle him out of the way and risk trouble.
"If I felt like I had a car to win the race, I would have been up there leaning on him," he said.
It was a cool, calculated game plan, part eye on the Chase, part not going for a cheap victory. No one in NASCAR is better at ignoring all the distractions and debates.
Perhaps Johnson has won over some fans this year; people resigned to the fact that the Californian is going to win it all again have decided to appreciate historic brilliance in action.
He certainly hasn't won them all.
Johnson again was booed lustily here at a track where you'd think his run of five victories in six starts coming into Sunday would've established a big fan base.
Instead, everyone waits for the big wreck at Talladega, unavoidable to some of the cars caught in its path. Perhaps, for a change, that will include Jimmie Johnson.
It's all the anti-Johnson gang has left – small hope for big trouble next week.
- Jimmie Johnson