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NASCAR: Johnson looking to add grandfather clock, Chase points at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – One of the most prized traditions in racing is the grandfather clock that goes to each winner at the Martinsville Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson has eight of them.

Every contender in the Chase for the Championship knows Johnson is the driver to beat in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Fast Relief Shot 500. For most, the plan is to stay close and minimize the loss of points.

“You can almost pencil the 48 [Johnson] in,” Matt Kenseth said. “Anything can happen, but past history shows that they’re pretty hard to beat here. Really just go out and try to perform.”

Johnson will be making his 24th career start at the fabled half-mile, paperclip-shaped speedway. He also will be looking for his 21st top-10 finish.

More importantly, he hopes to expand his current four-point lead over Kenseth in the Chase with another dominating performance. He’s won the last two races at Martinsville, and he picked up bonus points for leading the most laps in each.

Martinsville has been a springboard to all five of Johnson’s Sprint Cup Series championships. He won there in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He finished second in 2009 and fifth in 2010.

If he goes on to win a sixth championship, it likely will be anchored with a strong finish, if not another victory, at the 65-year-old racetrack.

“We have had a good run over the years. I understand where that comes from based on past history, but again it doesn’t guarantee anything for this weekend,” Johnson said. “At most it’s flattering, but we’ve got to go out there and get to work.”

Johnson won’t have to go very far to get to the front Sunday (1:30 p.m., ESPN). His Chevrolet will start on the front row beside pole winner Denny Hamlin, who has four career wins at Martinsville.

Kyle Busch will start third, while Kenseth is fourth.

“It’s very easy to over-drive the corner and sometimes easy to under-drive it as well,” Kenseth said. “So, it’s kind of technical which isn’t good for somebody as clumsy as me.”

Clint Bowyer will start fifth, followed by Joey Logano in sixth, Jamie McMurray in seventh, David Ragan in eighth, Jeff Gordon in ninth and Kevin Harvick in 10th.

After finishing 35th in his first start at Martinsville in 2002, Johnson hasn’t finished any worse than 12th since.

“I don’t know why the switch was flipped for me,” Johnson said. “I know how. I’ve said it a million times I was following Tony Stewart here as he came to lap me, I think my sophomore season, and something clicked. We came up and tested my rookie year a couple of times. Looked at data that Jeff [Gordon] was driving around the track and I couldn’t piece it together. There was something that finally clicked.

“I think once it clicks here for a driver it’s a place they always have. If it doesn’t it gets under your skin and aggravates you and continues to fester and create the flip side. You are happy and enjoy the place, you run well then the flip side is if you don’t and it festers you just have a tough time here and don’t like this place.”

Kenseth will be making his 28th start at Martinsville. He has eight top-10 finishes, but no wins. While Sunday’s race will be a challenge, he believes he can make up the difference in the final three races of the season.

“It’s not about getting through this weekend,” Kenseth said. “Like I said, I’ve obviously never won here and don’t have a lot of good finishes here so just looking at that I know this is probably going to be more challenging.

“The next three tracks, I think we’ve won at all of them and had good cars there and had decent history there. I feel like all three of those are the type of tracks that if we hit it right that we could have a chance to go win and race with anybody.”

But those tracks don’t reward success with a famed grandfather clock.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
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