Chase Battle Lines Drawn

NASCAR

Jimmie Johnson leads Matt Kenseth by four points in the title race heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)

Now, let the Chase begin.

The first six races have been the preamble, NASCAR’s version of “Survivor’’ where the goals was to just be close to the points lead after Talladega.

Few succeeded.

Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway with a four-point lead on Matt Kenseth and a 26-point advantage on Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon, 34 points behind, is the only other driver within a race of Johnson.

While any race can disrupt the standings - Jeff Burton still laments the blown engine that cost him the points lead in 2006 at Martinsville -  drivers know the biggest swings are more likely at Talladega Superspeedway. With that race past, title contenders focus on each other.

That can build drama. Think back to 2010 and the gamesmanship between Denny Hamlin’s team and Johnson’s team at Texas. Hamlin’s team picked the pit stall in front of Johnson’s for that race. Rarely do title contenders pick pit stalls next to each other, but Johnson’s team did it to Hamlin earlier in the Chase and this was the payback.

In 2011, Tony Stewart was 19 points behind Carl Edwards with four races to go. Stewart won three of the last four races, finishing third in the other, to beat Edwards for the title on a tiebreaker.

All Kenseth needs to do is outscore Johnson by a point a race and he’ll win the championship on the tiebreaker - Kenseth has seven wins to Johnson’s five.

Johnson knows the challenge the faces. Late in Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, he was outside the top 15 running near Kenseth. The goal then?

“At the end, it was focus on being ahead of him and trying to get any points I could,’’ said Johnson, who took the points lead from Kenseth on Sunday.

The challenge for Kenseth this week is to keep from falling further behind. Johnson won Martinsville’s spring race. Kenseth led 96 laps but finished 14th. That allowed Johnson to gain 17 points on Kenseth that race. A repeat could devastate Kenseth’s title hopes.

Johnson has 13 top-five finishes in his last 16 Martinsville starts. Kenseth has five top-10 finishes in that same stretch at Martinsville.

Kenseth is not looking behind but ahead.

“I feel like we can go everywhere else, and, honestly, we can race with anybody when we’re at our best,’’ he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be at our best the next four weeks and we’ll give them a run for their money.’’

If Johnson and Kenseth have problems, it could give Busch and Harvick a second chance at the title. Busch has won two races at 1.5-mile tracks and two such tracks remain - Texas and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick has finished no worse than 13th, including a win, in the eight 1.5-mile tracks this season. He also won at Phoenix last fall.

“It’s going to be a hard-fought battle all the way to the end,’’ Busch said. “There’s definitely no rest for the weary.’’

Motor Racing Network – “The Voice of NASCAR” – will have live coverage of Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger from Martinsville Speedway at 12:30 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MotorRacingNetwork.com.

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