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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson took off his helmet, removed the steering wheel and settled into his seat, hands gripped firmly in a ball around the steering post and eyes focused on the scoring tower in the middle of the Martinsville Speedway infield.
At one point, he asked a photographer blocking his view to kneel.
There was the kind of intensity on Johnson's face Friday that you see in a boxer staring down an opponent before the opening bell of a championship bout. Only his primary opponent, points leader Brad Keselowski, was in the garage after a qualifying lap that would end up 32nd.
That's the way it appeared as Johnson watched the final six cars qualify for Sunday's race at this half-mile track, one that is his favorite on the Sprint Cup circuit.
|Jimmie Johnson did some score pylon watching after he put down would ultimately be the pole-winning speed.|
And it would be a good story if that were true. But Johnson, who says he's not superstitious even though he shows tendencies of being so, simply didn't want to be that guy told in the middle of an interview that somebody else had the top spot.
"I'm like, 'I'm just not letting anything in the cosmic world affect me. I'm staying in the car. I'm not doing any interviews. I'm going to wait until it's over because it always happens,' " Johnson said. "You get out, you talk on a mike. 'Oh sorry, you've just been knocked down to second.' I wasn't going to have that."
It was a huge moment, regardless, and Johnson knew it, judging by the emotion on his face as he high-fived crewmen and hugged his dad when qualifying was official. The five-time champion not only got the key selection of pit stall but, in all likelihood, he'll be within half a lap of lapping Keselowski by the time he completes his first lap.
This Chase just got tighter even before the green flag waved. Johnson's seven-point deficit and Denny Hamlin's 20-point deficit all of a sudden seem like nothing.
Even Clint Bowyer, 25 back, has to be feeling pretty good starting 24 spots ahead of the points leader.
"It's big," said Hamlin -- who will start fifth -- of Keselowski's starting spot. "It will give you a really bad pit selection, which is the biggest key that I notice that will hurt. Ultimately, at the start of races when you start getting into each other, things happen a little bit worse back there because of the chain reaction."
Yes, it's big.
In the past 10 Martinsville races, only four times has a driver started worse than Keselowski and finished in the top 10. Kevin Harvick was the last to do it, finishing third in 2010 after starting 36th.
The odds of Keselowski going a lap down early also increase. The driver who has started 32nd has gone a lap down in fewer than 80 laps in five of the past 14 Martinsville races.
Juan Pablo Montoya was passed by the leader on Lap 66 in the spring. Kevin Conway took only 24 cycles to go a lap down in 2010.
If that happens early to Keselowski, the pressure really shifts.
"There's no reason that we should lose points to the 2 [Keselowski] this weekend," Hamlin said. "I don't anticipate it."
Neither should Johnson.
"The tough position [starting near the back] is, once you get single file and get about 10 laps into the show, the leaders are to the 43rd-place car," he said. "You have got to go. Everybody around you has that same mentality, too, so it can be pretty cutthroat back there."
But if Keselowski is feeling pressure, he's not showing it. He seemed as loose, if not looser, than he has in the past few weeks. When I posted on Twitter a column asking whether Keselowski can handle the pressure, whether Johnson is the favorite, he responded: " can the cape crusader rescue Gotham? Or will it fall into the joker's evil hands? Cue the 60s music."
Asked Friday about the pressure, Keselowski deadpanned, "I haven't even thought about it."
I don't entirely buy that, but let Keselowski explain further.
"I play this video game a lot called Madden Football, and I've got this friend that I play it with," he said. "[He] has this joke that there's two types of pressures: pressure applied and pressure felt. And there might be pressure applied, but I don't feel it. How about that?"
There definitely was pressure applied by Johnson and Hamlin in qualifying. That Johnson is a six-time Martinsville winner and Hamlin a four-time winner, that their average finishes here are 5.8 and 6.2, doesn't make Keselowski's challenge any easier.
|Crew chief Paul Wolfe and driver Brad Keselowski have their work cut out for them Sunday at Martinsville.|
Saturday's first practice only magnified the situation. Johnson was fourth fastest, Hamlin 11th and Keselowski 27th, last among the 12 Chase drivers.
But consider: Keselowski has started 25th or worse in the past three races, but has finished eighth, 11th and seventh. His average start in the Chase is 17.5, but his average finish is 5.6.
And consider that Johnson started 22nd in the spring race here but was contending for the win until a late dive-bomb by Bowyer took him out.
"I thought last weekend was harder to pass than this weekend will be, to be honest," Keselowski said. "And that's not to say it's going to be easy here at Martinsville, but there are quite a few more variables that I think work to your favor with strategies and so forth.
"I feel confident that it'll work its way out here. Obviously, it's a very, very long race with 500 laps around here. There are a lot of tools in our tool chest to help us recover from that."
Johnson and Hamlin have more than tools. They have a history at Martinsville that demands respect, that shows they likely will leave with no worse than a top-5 finish.
Keselowski never has finished better than ninth here.
"If, for some reason, we can lead the most laps and win the race, that's half of our deficit that we've got that we can knock out in one week," Hamlin said. "We can chip away from there.
"This place will build momentum, or it will take it. You just hope you are on the first side of that."
To be on the first side, it helps to start first. That didn't escape Johnson as he sat in the car until qualifying was over.
"When it gets playoff time, things happen," Johnson said. "I don't want to put my guard down. Certainly, very happy about today's performance and where we have ended up and we are ahead of our competitors, but it is playoff time and everybody brings their best stuff."
That's not gamesmanship.
That's game on.