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Auto Racing

Johnson Hitting Championship Form As Chase Nears

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: May 25, 2013 at 02:24 PM

While Jimmie Johnson was kissing the bricks Sunday at Indianapolis, the rest of NASCAR might have been uttering a collective uh-oh.

The best team in NASCAR over the past few seasons is back at full song. Surely Johnson must now be considered at least a co-title favorite with points leader and seven race-winner Kyle Busch.

Who could bet against Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus? They've won the past two championships, and they do their best racing when it counts most. Last year, Johnson got six of his 10 victories in the final 12 races.

After a slow start in 2008, Johnson has been increasingly stout in recent weeks. He'd have consecutive victories if Busch hasn't snookered him on a late restart at Chicago.

"I think any racetrack we go to right now, I'm proud to say we can run top-five speeds," Knaus said after Johnson's Brickyard victory. "If you can do that on a weekly basis, you're going to be in a position to go for a championship."

Six races remain before the Chase, during which Johnson has won 11 times in the past four years.

Thumbs Down On Rule Change

Being ill-prepared for Sunday's race at Indianapolis isn't the only reason to question NASCAR this week.

Last week's rule change aimed at cutting the horsepower of Toyota's Nationwide Series engines looks like a prejudicial swipe at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota.

Toyota had won 14 of 21 races (now 15 of 22) when the rule change was announced, and that certainly qualifies as domination. But Hendrick Motorsports won half of the Sprint Cup races and ran away with the championship last year with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and neither it nor Chevrolet was subjected to a rule change to "equalize" competition.

NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton said the rule change was justified because Gibbs and Toyota had the advantage of newer technology and parts. That's true, but the other manufacturers have the opportunity to get new engine platforms approved at the appropriate time.

The rule change could unfairly penalize the non-Gibbs Toyota teams, which have combined to win one race.

Mark Martin was known for a lot of things during his 19-year career as a full-time driver. A sunny disposition wasn't one of them.

Even when he was running for championships, he was often, well, a stick in the mud.

That changed in 2005, the year of his "Salute to You Tour." Martin was stepping away from NASCAR's top level, or so he said, and he wanted to say thanks for the fan and media support he had received through his career.

He became introspective, appreciative, even optimistic. He's been like that ever since.

Friend and former Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth has noticed the change.

"When I met Mark, he was kind of a pessimist," Kenseth said. "He wasn't always down - he was always in a good mood - but he was like, 'Aw, man, I can't believe I've got to go do that.' ... 'The schedule is too long' ... 'Man, we ran terrible,' and he finished third.

"Then about four years ago, he just flipped a switch, and it was the total opposite. Everything was great. Everything was fun. He couldn't wait to get to the track."

Martin says the part-time schedule he has run the past two years has rejuvenated him and that getting surprisingly good results with supposedly lesser teams has raised his spirits.

Of course, he's going back to full-time competition next year at age 50 with Hendrick Motorsports and the expectations will be high.

Maybe somebody can put a piece of tape over the switch to keep it in the up position.

"I might as well enjoy it. It's better than a kick in the groin." - Kyle Busch, when asked if he enjoys it when the boos intensify with his victory bows.

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