More and more, the battle for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is looking like a two-man race between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
Johnson flexed his muscle last weekend at Martinsville, winning the pole on Friday and the race on Sunday. With his 59th career win, Johnson tied teammate Jeff Gordon as the winningest active driver at the track with seven victories.
His victory clinched a 10th straight Manufacturer’s Cup and 36th overall for Chevrolet. He barely missed another milestone as it was the carmaker’s 699th win in Cup Series competition.
Of course, Johnson is no stranger to milestones; he’s the only driver to win five straight Sprint Cup Series championships. For the first time in this year’s Chase, he is the points leader. By winning and leading the most laps, he overtook sixth-place finisher Keselowski for the championship lead. Johnson now holds a two-point lead over Keselowski with races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead remaining on the schedule.
While falling short of trash-talking, Johnson sounded like a man ready for a serious title fight.
“We’re ready to race under any conditions,” Johnson said. “He’s a great driver and it’s a great team. The next two races will tell the tale. Anything can happen. We could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer is your champion. You never know. You got to go race the race.”
Bowyer now trails Johnson by 26 points and his teammate, Kasey Kahne, is 29 points behind. It will take problems by Johnson and Keselowski for them to climb back into contention.
For all intensive purposes, Denny Hamlin is out of the championship race after finishing 33rd at Martinsville. He had a bolt break on a master control switch, and the rare mechanical failure left him 49 points behind Johnson.
The biggest winner may have been Keselowski, who qualified 32nd and finished sixth. It was his best finish ever on the paper clip-shaped short track.
Keselowski, the 2010 Nationwide Series champion, is confident the battle between he and Johnson will mirror last season’s duel with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, going down to the final moments.
“This championship is going to come down to Homestead,” Keselowski said. “You just have to be in position where you’ve got a shot at it, and we’re doing the things it’s going to take to be in contention at Homestead. We’ve got Texas coming up, very similar to Chicago. I’m sure it’s going to be a duel.
“I feel really confident going into Texas and Homestead. I feel like those are two races that we can race the 48 car heads-up in speed and maybe even a little bit better than them. I’m not quite so sure about Phoenix, but you know the execution we have in this team right now is second to none.”
Johnson certainly doesn’t discount his young rival, comparing his efforts this season to others he’s battled for titles.
“The championships I’ve won, I saw a lot of amazing things out of my competition,” Johnson said. “I’m certainly seeing that with Brad. It’s just that familiar space where you can’t count him out.
“I see more of a familiar, never-quit, fight-to-the-end attitude out of the 2 team, that I’ve seen with some of the best in the sport. If it’s Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon, Denny, Mark Martin, they have that tenacity to stay after it and they’re doing a great job.”
Many of our local racers have been among the best in the nation this year.
Greeneville’s Allen Johnson just needs to qualify at Pomona in a couple of weeks to wrap up the NHRA Pro Stock title. It is a well-deserved reward for the 17-year veteran, who has led the Full Throttle circuit with six wins and 10 poles this season. Johnson had nine career wins over the previous 16 years.
If you go back to February, Kingsport driver John King pulled off a monster upset by winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series opener at Daytona.
Mike Brown of Gray picked up his first X Games gold medal back in July. It was an amazing accomplishment for the 40-year-old, who beat a field of motocross riders nearly half his age.
In addition, Kingsport Speedway champion Nate Monteith finished fourth in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national points. Johnson City driver Zeke Shell finished 36th nationally.
Brad Teague, another Johnson City driver, has competed in four Nationwide Series races this season, running at the finish of each race.
Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg continued to build on his Hall of Fame career with a third-place finish in the Lucas Oil Late Dirt Late Model standings. Bloomquist, considered by many the greatest dirt track racer of all-time, has 501 career wins as well as national championships in four different sanctioning bodies.
If you go back to the previous year, it’s been incredible stretch for East Tennessee drivers, starting with Knoxville’s Trevor Bayne winning the 2011 Daytona 500.