Jimmie Johnson has enough grandfather clocks to open a small store.
He, however, hasn’t collected these masterfully crafted timepieces with the intent to sell. Instead, he’s earned them by hard racing in close quarters against the fiercest of competition and coming out victorious. This Sunday, Johnson looks to add a ninth to his collection in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 (1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Martinsville Speedway, where it is a tradition to present the winner with a Ridgeway grandfather clock — one of the coolest trophies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Although Johnson will certainly be excited to receive another clock, he’s probably going to be more excited to see what the win does for his position in the standings and how much of a gap he’s able to open up between him and his closest rival, Matt Kenseth.
“He’s won a championship; he knows what it’s like to experience the pressure,” Johnson said about Kenseth. “When I look at the tracks on the schedule, Martinsville, if you look at stats over a career, I’d say there’s an opportunity although when we were there in the spring he ran really good. So, I think Matt has a lot of confidence moving forward for these next four events, as do we. So, his maturity, his mindset, I don’t think I can do much there. He’s pretty rock solid in that department.”
In Kenseth’s first trip to the .526-mile track with his new No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team back in April, he finished a respectable 13th. Johnson, however, won the event after leading 348 of the event’s 500 laps. The win was his second consecutive victory at Martinsville, after winning last fall’s race. Overall, five of Johnson’s eight victories have come in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with three of them (2006-08) in seasons that he won the championship.
Heading into the postseason, Kenseth carried a three-point advantage over Johnson and Kyle Busch on the strength of five victories. Kenseth held on to the top spot until last weekend at Talladega when neither he nor Johnson finished in the top 10 for the first time in the postseason. Kenseth entered the weekend with a four-point lead, but left Alabama trailing Johnson by four points.
“When we’re leading the points it’s certainly helpful. It’s a place we want to be,” Johnson said. “I’d rather be in the lead defending than trying to get points and get ahead. I like the position we’re in.
“In years past, the pressure has weighed on me differently and I think through the experience of winning those five and being in the sport as long as I have now and maturing that I’m really in the position I want to be in and hope to stay in the rest of the year.”
Johnson has history on his side. The leader after six of 10 Chase races has gone on to claim the championship in six of nine seasons, including Johnson in 2008-10. His eight victories at the paper-clip-shaped track is most among active drivers, trailing only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip on the all-time wins list at Martinsville.
In 23 starts at the track, Johnson has 16 top fives, 20 top 10s and three poles with a series-best finishing position (3.9), running position (5.9), passing differential (296), laps in the top 15 (7,849), laps led (2,156), green-flag speed (91.569 mph) and driver rating (123.8). He also has the second-most fastest laps run (889) and quality passes (596) at the short track.
This season, he has collected five wins, 13 top fives and 20 top 10s along with two poles. He has led 20 races for a total of 1,606 laps. Prior to the Chase, he held the top spot in the standings after 24 of the 26 races. After the first six weeks of the Chase, he’s returned to his familiar perch and hopes to stay firmly seated there until he’s hoisting his sixth series championship trophy at Homestead less than a month from now.
“Martinsville has been good to us in the past,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to go there and race. There is going to be a lot of strong competition. We will make sure we get buttoned up and ready to go for this weekend’s race and go up there to that paperclip and see what we can do.”
IS THIRD TIME A CHARM FOR BURTON?
In Jeb Burton’s debut in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville Speedway in March 2012, he finished a respectable 13th. This past April, Burton returned to the .526-mile paper-clip-shaped track as a full-time driver in the second race of the season and almost pulled off the victory.
He improved upon his previous finish at the track by 10 positions, finishing third behind veterans Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton. He led a race-high 154 of 250 laps. This weekend, Burton and the rest of the truck series return to Martinsville for Saturday’s Kroger 200 (1:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1).
“I can’t wait to get back to this track. It’s my favorite track on the circuit,” Burton said. “We dominated last time we were here and unfortunately just gave it away towards the end.
“We have a really good truck and I think we have a good shot at getting another pole award and, hopefully, another win.”
Burton was able to get the most out of his good starting position by running at the front or near the front of the field for most of the race. The Virginia native has become quite adept at starting on the front row in his first full year of competition capturing the pole a series-high six times in the first 18 races, including last weekend at Talladega.
In two career races at the track, Burton has an average start of 4.0 and average finish of 8.0.
He is having a solid season, which includes his first national series win at Texas; however, he’s currently in fourth place in the championship standings, 82 points behind leader Crafton. In the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race, he trails Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr.
Although he might not take home the champion’s hardware at the end of the season, one thing is apparent — Burton is a talented driver with a bright future.