One word describes Jimmie Johnson’s performance at Martinsville Speedway: Phenomenal.
And even that might be understating it.
Johnson is head and shoulders above the competition at the historic, .526-mile short track in southern Virginia which hosts Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500.
His eight victories are tops among active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors. He’s the defending winner of last fall’s Martinsville race and won again in April. Johnson leads his rivals in Driver Rating (123.8) and average finish (5.3) and has finished on the lead lap in 22 consecutive events.
And – oh, yes – the five-time series champion is now the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ leader displacing Matt Kenseth. Four the fourth time, Talladega Superspeedway’s event produced a lead change in the Chase era. Wild Card track indeed. Johnson and Kenseth swapped four-point advantages as neither rival finished among the top 10 for the first time in the 2013 postseason.
The leader after six of 10 Chase races has gone on to claim the championship in six of nine seasons. Johnson did three times – from 2008-2010. The worst ranking – fourth – belongs to Tony Stewart, who erased a 19-point deficit over the final four races of 2011 to edge Carl Edwards on a tie-breaker.
Thanks to Johnson, Martinsville’s fall race is among the most reliable predictors of the championship. He won the event in his first three championship seasons (2006-2008). Stewart was the Martinsville winner two years ago.
Every Chase era champion has finished among the top 10 in Martinsville’s second event. Brad Keselowski’s sixth-place finish in 2012 is the worst by the champion. All others claimed a top five, beginning with Kurt Busch’s fourth place in 2004. Their average finish is 2.56.
Only one champion-to-be, Johnson in 2010, failed to lead at least one lap of the fall race.
While an afternoon of fender-on-fender competition might be expected to separate the champion from the ultimate runner up, that’s not necessarily the case. Eventual second-place championship finishers have won twice, posted five top-five and seven top-10 finishes and led six races. Their average finish is 7.0.
Conclusion: The championship isn’t always won at Martinsville. A poor finish, however, likely means you’ll wait another year.