Fight for first heating up

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- "So, here's how this used to work … "

Morgan Shepherd, who has walked and raced around Martinsville Speedway since the Nixon administration, pointed toward the Petty Blue ride made famous by its driver-turned-owner, Richard Petty. The King of Stock Car Racing earned a record 15 Martinsville wins, including 10 out of 14 from 1967 to 1973.

"When you came here back then, you watched that 43 car from the time it unloaded on Friday until the time we loaded back up on Sunday evening. You tried your hardest to put him a lap down as quick as you could. That was your only chance. If you let him stay up there and then get away, it was over, bud."

Shepherd said the same of 11-time winner Darrell Waltrip in the '80s, seven-time winner Rusty Wallace in the '90s, and now?

"That 48 car, he's pretty stout, ain't he?"

Yes, Mr. Shepherd, he is. It's not a question of whether Jimmie Johnson is one of the best of all time at NASCAR's oldest racetrack but if perhaps he might be the best ever. His eight wins, a tally that trails only Petty and Waltrip, would be impressive enough no matter how many races he had started on the half-mile oval. His 2,327 laps led ranks seventh all time.

But he has raced here only 23 times, less than half what those other two legends racked up and 18 fewer than teammate Jeff Gordon, a seven-time winner. Johnson has won two in a row three times, including his current win streak and a run of three consecutive in '06-'07. Of his three non-top-10 finishes, only one was lower than 12th, a 35th-place finish in his first Martinsville visit 11 years ago.

The rest of the world might have forgotten about that early rough day at "The Paperclip," but Johnson has not.

"We came up and tested my rookie year a couple of times," he recalled of that 2002 season. "I looked at the data that Jeff [Gordon] was driving around the track, and I couldn't piece it together. But there was something that finally clicked. I think once it clicks here for a driver, it's a place they always have. It doesn't get under your skin."

Now it's Johnson who gets under their skin. And under their left-rear quarter panel. And under their bumper as he accelerates up off the corner.

He is particularly irritating when he comes to his best track not exactly in need of any extra help. One week ago, he rolled into Talladega Superspeedway ranked second in the championship standings, trailing Matt Kenseth by four points. When the admittedly bizarre restrictor-plate race was over, he was in the points lead, four markers ahead.

No, four points isn't much. It's essentially four positions on the racetrack. But the psychological blow of the three stat sheets being handed out in Martinsville media center -- the Sprint Cup Series standings, each driver's career numbers at this racetrack and Friday's qualifying results -- plays right into the hands of Johnson, who admits to enjoying the mind games of a title fight.

"I am focused mostly on the 20 [Kenseth]," Johnson said Friday, adding that he had cranked out a 20-mile run Thursday, stretching out the mileage because his coach reminded him of Kenseth's car number. "He's been ahead of me, you know Talladega has been looming out there, as we've all known. I didn't want to put too much stock in just chasing the 20 until we got out of Talladega."

But if there's ever been a modern NASCAR driver built with the kind of mental makeup that would seem impervious to Jedi mind tricks, it's Kenseth. When told of Johnson's 20-mile run, he joked, "It would take me a week to run 20 miles even if somebody was chasing me."

Then he addressed Johnson's stunning Martinsville numbers by saying he already had texted the points leader and "told him that we're friends and everything, but I would appreciate it if he wouldn't ask me for any advice this weekend. He's going to leave me alone. He's not going to ask me for any tips on Martinsville until the weekend is over."

In one fell swoop, the '03 Sprint (then Winston) Cup champ also had addressed his less-than-stellar career Martinsville statistics. In 27 starts, he has no wins and only eight top-10 finishes. But one year ago he finished fourth, his best finish in a decade, and, in April, his first Martinsville visit with Joe Gibbs Racing, he led 96 laps, 23 more than he had led in his previous 26 tries combined.

On Friday afternoon, Johnson barely missed out on the pole position, and he will roll off second. Kenseth will be right behind him in fourth, the fifth time in the past four years he has qualified among the first four rows.

"It gives me a lot more hope that you'll have a good run here, like we did in the spring and like we did at New Hampshire," Kenseth said of the flat track uptick he has experienced this year after years of struggles with Roush Fenway Racing. "I feel good about our packages and our equipment when it comes to short tracks and big tracks. I'm optimistic."

But what about all that talk about slaying the giant early … putting the beast a lap down and keeping him there … haven't you seen Jimmie's stat sheet at this place?!

"I can't ever recall them running bad," he said in classic Kenseth deadpan. "Really, I don't. People always say, 'Man, it's a great track for Jimmie.' Is there a bad one?"