And then there were two. Or should we say then there were the 48 and the 2?
With three races left now in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup, the familiar No. 48 Chevrolet of driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus is positioned in the all-too-familiar position of leaving everyone else to do the chasing. Johnson took over the Chase points lead from Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Dodge, after winning Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. In the process, Johnson essentially left everyone else besides Keselowski too far behind in the standings to be considered serious contenders any longer.
While Keselowski is only two points behind Johnson and has displayed the consistency and tenacity all season long to suggest he isn't going anywhere until the bitter end, the third supposed contender to this year's crown, Denny Hamlin, was done in Sunday by a parts failure that forced him to settle for a 33rd-place finish. That dropped him from 20 points out of the lead and third in the standings when the day began to 49 points out of the lead and fifth in the standings by day's end. With only races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead remaining, Hamlin is finished and acknowledged as much to the media following Sunday's debacle.
Johnson, whose string of five consecutive Chase conquests was broken only last year when Tony Stewart captured the title, isn't taking anything for granted and certainly isn't talking smack. He said he learned long ago that "getting cocky" doesn't work for him.
"Anything can happen. We could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer [now in third, 26 points out of the lead] is your champion," Johnson insisted of the perception that it's now a two-man race between the 48 and the 2 car of Keselowski. "You never know. You've got to go race the races."
Of course that's what he's saying. But the odds of anyone besides Johnson or Keselowski winning the championship now are next to nil, and Johnson knows it.
Johnson and Hamlin came into the Martinsville race believing they needed to win at the .526-mile short track where they've both excelled to boost their championship hopes. And while Hamlin was dealing with a pair of pit-road speeding tickets even before the $40 parts failure that doomed his day for good occurred, Johnson and Knaus were displaying the kind of chemistry and guile that already has netted them five titles together.
"I think in order to be the champion, the tracks you know you can win at you have to win at. We did that [Sunday]," Johnson said.
From the outside looking in, it may have looked like a clockwork weekend for the 48 team. Win the pole on Friday to claim the all-important first pit stall at the tricky track? Check. Fast in final practice on Saturday? Check. Claim their fourth race of the season and their seventh all-time at Martinsville on Sunday? Checkmate.
But it wasn't nearly as easy as it may have looked to the casual observer, according to Knaus. He said it started with the speedy qualifying lap Johnson was able to turn on Friday, but credited the over-the-wall pit crew with helping him stay on top of changing track conditions to help Johnson battle through stretches of the race where the driver had to fall back a bit and bide his time, waiting for the conditions to favor him again.
"Obviously Jimmie did a remarkable job of searching and moving around [the track surface]," Knaus said. "When the sun came out, the track got tight, and we fell back a little bit. He kept his head in the game. We made some big swings to the chassis again, finally got closer there toward the end of the race."
And that was all his driver, who can smell that sixth championship through the burnout smoke he left on the frontstretch at Martinsville's paper clip, needed.
"I think a true testament to Jimmie is the way he can go out there and manage the race even if we're not leading, fall back if we need to a little bit, then he's able to charge back up after he gets his groove and some of the other guys burn their tires off," Knaus said. "Jimmie's experience came into play [Sunday], maybe more so than we've seen in the Chase so far. That's pretty impressive, to be able to come back from the race car we had, where he could have easily pushed the car too hard, burned up the brakes, blown a right front tire -- and he had the wherewithal not to do that."
Thinking like champs
And now Johnson has the wherewithal not to gloat. Not yet, anyway.
Keselowski still lurks right on the bumper of the 48 car. The memory of what happened to Hamlin Sunday remains fresh in Johnson's mind.
So there's no smack talking. No bold predictions. No getting ahead of himself in the game that still must be played to completion.
"I'm not smiling. I'm not anything. It can happen to me. It can happen to the 2," Johnson told the media after winning Sunday -- and watching Hamlin's championship dreams go up in smoke. "It's just one of those Voodoo things you don't do in this sport. With three races left, anything can happen.
"I know it's frustrating for me to say that to all of you. You're looking for somebody to call a shot. But you got to play the game, you've got to run the race. We could have some mechanical issue, an electrical issue, an accident on the track. With three races left, there are a lot of laps to be run."
Sure, there are. And there also is a whole lot less competition left on the lead lap coming to the home stretch.
Johnson said his team's motivation is different from last year, when they fell short in their attempt to win a sixth consecutive championship. Now there is no streak to maintain; only a collective legacy with which to play add-on.
"I really like the purity of our desire right now, where it's coming from. It's coming from a really good place," Johnson said. "It's neat to see everybody on the team kind of operating with a clean sheet of paper, with open minds, just racing."
Knaus said: "Honestly, it's funny because everybody always refers back to the five championships. We were battling for championships well before we won our first five. We've been together for 10-plus years.
"I can't think of a season where we weren't in the championship hunt. So I think that's something this team and Jimmie are built around. When it's time to go and make this stuff happen, I think that's when this team excels."
They certainly did it again Sunday.