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Johnson defends points lead as NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville


1. When will Jimmie Johnson’s Martinsville fortune run out?  
I’ve been writing and talking this week about the shared topic of many others tasked with putting words together about Sunday’s race. That topic? Jimmie Johnson’s magical Martinsville touch.

It’s almost unfathomable how good he has been on the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway over the last decade or so. With eight wins total (seven in his last 14 starts) and enough top-5 finishes to turn the place into his personal playground, Johnson can only be expected to continue the trend in Sunday’s race. He did, after all, average the first-place position back in the spring.

But a good portion of racing always includes luck. In fact, Johnson found a lot of the bad version of luck in the late summer stretch of the regular season.

When will his Martinsville luck take a brief break or a three-day vacation from the friendly venue that is Martinsville Speedway? When will Johnson catch a flat tire, broken part or a lapped car at the wrong moment?

After last week when most everyone expected a wild Chase mix-up at Talladega and it never really materialized, it’s not wise to say Johnson should be nervous this weekend about losing his slim points lead.

But it’s interesting to think about when Johnson will actually face the necessary demons, ills and worthless luck that so often pervades many-a-driver’s career at a short track. Knowing Johnson, of course, it’ll happen in the regular season spring race.

2. NASCAR finally implements concussion testingA year after the sport’s most prominent driver — Dale Earnhardt Jr. — sat out four races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup thanks to a concussion; a year after four-time series champion Jeff Gordon made it abundantly clear that he would never voluntarily sit himself (without doctor’s orders) in case of concussion-like symptoms; and a year after Denny Hamlin walloped the wall during a Kansas practice session and stated later that the demands of the Chase probably got him back in the car too quickly, NASCAR has finally implemented an accountable system for checking concussions in the sport.

The sanctioning body announced Thursday that drivers would be subject to a concussion baseline screening before the 2014 season (and, expectantly, every season beyond that) to help officials better identify if a hard crash had caused a brain injury.

It’s a slow step, sure, but it’s also the right step. However, be wary of how stringent NASCAR’s standards for participation will be. Say Jimmie Johnson is leading the points by 25 with a race to go in 2014 and knocks the wall down in the season-finale practice while suffering a potential concussion.

What are the odds NASCAR actually prohibits his participation? Who knows. NASCAR is now in a smart territory by checking for the injuries, but also in a messy one in case it needs to sit a driver for a few weeks.

For what it’s worth, should NASCAR build a point system more focused on high finishes and wins, it’d reduce the effect of sitting a driver who needs to sit. That is, of course, a whole other discussion.

3. Front Row Motorsports looking for two in a row
David Ragan didn’t leave Talladega holding his defending winner status. Teammate David Gilliland didn’t get his retribution for finishing second to Ragan in the spring, either.

But both Front Row Motorsports teammates had to leave the behemoth racetrack pretty enamored with the pair of top 10s scored by the underfunded team. They took home a better prize purse, earned some much needed points and even kept the body shop from performing a substantial rebuild on either car. Making matters better, they get to a Martinsville track where mid-season testing may be an advantage.

“We took a brand new car, one that was one of the first few of an improved build done at Front Row Motorsports,” Ragan said of the Martinsville test.

Testing is a premium for the small-budget team, so seeing if Ragan or Gilliland fare in Sunday’s race will be an interesting footnote.

“You have to worry about your brakes and handling and getting off the corner,” Ragan said. “It just makes for good racing. I think it goes back to your old-school days when you had a ton of race cars on a short track.”

4. Matt Kenseth can’t afford late-race Martinsville fadeMatt Kenseth raced the best of his career at Martinsville Speedway back in April. But there was just one problem: He still finished 14th.

Kenseth suited up for the April event knowing plenty well that Martinsville had long ranked as one of the worst tracks in his career. It’s not often, after all, that a driver of Kenseth’s caliber stakes a claim to a top-10 percentage of 30.7 at any racetrack after 25 starts.

It was Kenseth’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing that stands as the most obvious answer as to why he led a career-high 96 laps and tallied the third-best average running position of all drivers in the spring race. JGR has long been successful with Kenseth’s teammate Denny Hamlin at the short track.

But it’s still a head-scratcher as to why his No. 20 Toyota faded so quickly down the stretch. With 80 percent of the race completed, Kenseth stood sixth. By the checkered flag, he was down to 14th.

Such a perilous drop during Sunday’s race if, as expected, Jimmie Johnson runs and finishes up front could be a disaster to Kenseth’s title hopes. There are simply too few races remaining for hopeful expectations of large points swings to be a reality for title underdogs.

5. Pit stall selection will play huge role in late-race track position  
Teams will breathe a sigh of relief Friday at Martinsville thanks to the chilly but clear weather forecast that will provide maximum track time and the opportunity to qualify for Sunday’s race. That’s because of Martinsville’s pit road layout that tends to lend a strong advantage to drivers who qualify well.

Martinsville, like its short track cousin Bristol Motor Speedway, is old enough to be a part of the tracks in NASCAR that used to have two pit roads. In fact, look closely enough at the Martinsville backstretch this weekend and you can see how the old pit road wall remains.

Now that Martinsville has one pit road, however, the confined area and lengthy travel (pit road wraps from the entrance of Turn 3 to the exit of Turn 2) make pit selection critical for teams looking to score good finishes. The best spots are at the end of pit road in Turn 2 thanks to the heavy congestion that can build up along the frontstretch and the clear shot back to the track offered by a pit stall near the end of the speed-limited zone.

Teams, like always, will pick stalls based on where the driver has qualified. In the spring, no one other than Jimmie Johnson won the pole, giving the No. 48 the best pit stall at the end of pit road. He wound up using it masterfully, as he took the lead from Matt Kenseth during a caution and pit road sequence with 137 laps to go and never looked back on his way to the win.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter:@GeoffreyMiller
Photos byAction Sports, Inc.