Martinsville Wrap: Two-man race for champ
Jimmie Johnson did more than just pass Jeff Gordon with 44 laps left to win Sunday's race at Martinsville. He also stayed out of trouble, which wasn't easy on a day when a record 21 caution flags flew at the Virginia track. For Johnson, staying perfect is what he is going to need to run Gordon down in the standings over the final four races. It wasn't easy for any driver to avoid a mishap in Sunday's race, and steering clear of bad luck was a key to finishing well.
Johnson will have to hope bad luck continues to pass him by in the remaining races, and his fantasy owners know he will be pushing for victories every week. It's great to know, if you have Johnson on your team, that he has little room for error and needs to contend for a win in every one of the final races to keep his championship hopes alive. He has a terrific shot of delivering four more top-5 finishes as he tries to inch closer to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Johnson's victory was frustrating from the perspective that he gained only 15 points in the standings on Gordon, who finished in third. Johnson might need to keep winning to gain small increments in the standings each of the next three weeks so he can have a realistic shot of winning the championship going into the season finale at Homestead. For Gordon, it continues to be about stacking up top-5 finishes even if he doesn't win. Any showings outside the top 10 in the next four races certainly would endanger Gordon's lead.
Because he can continue to play it safer, Gordon is a less attractive fantasy choice than Johnson the remainder of the season. It was mildly surprising to see him jostle with Ryan Newman for position late in the race when an aggressive approach could have put a top-5 showing at risk, especially on a day when so many mishaps occurred. Yet it was clear Gordon was simply reacting to Newman's antics, and he still ended up with a very satisfying finish. For Johnson, anything less than a win, once he grabbed the lead, would have qualified as a disappointment.
The pressure stays on Johnson, who is operating with a great sense of urgency as the Nextel Cup Series heads to Atlanta. In salary-cap-style leagues, knowing his outlook, he becomes a must-start and a definite anchor of your squad for the next four events. Johnson is known for being a great finisher late in the season, and it's certainly not out of the question for him to come through with at least two wins in the final four races. Gordon's goal is to keep finishing ahead of -- or at least very close to -- Johnson each week, so owners in other formats can be assured of more strong finishes from him even if he doesn't notch another victory this season.
It is essentially a two-driver race now, although Clint Bowyer certainly has not been eliminated. The third-place driver is 115 points behind Gordon, and it would take something of a minor miracle for him to make a realistic push for the title at this point. Yet Bowyer should continue to be a solid fantasy choice and a good bet for a win in the final four events. It is apparent Bowyer has improved, as his ninth-place finish was his best showing at Martinsville. Tony Stewart is 249 points back after finishing 13th at Martinsville and is showing no real signs of being able to regain his dominant form of the summer. His owners might have only an outside shot of winning their leagues in 2007.
Many drivers are pushing aggressively for good finishes as the season winds down, as evidenced by the record total of cautions at Martinsville this week. According to NASCAR, when compared with the Martinsville race in April, passing more than doubled in Sunday's race at the site.
There were 959 green-flag passes in the April race. On Sunday, there were 2,102 passes under green. It is clear drivers are becoming more comfortable in the Car of Tomorrow and are driving aggressively with it as the season winds down. With many drivers having nothing to lose in these final four races, especially the non-Chase guys, any lower-ranked driver will be a risk for a DNF or a disappointing finish. Now is the time of the season when fantasy players really lean hard on their lineup anchors such as Johnson, Gordon and Bowyer.
• Newman continues to push hard for one more chance at a victory. He finished second for the third time this season Sunday, and had a late caution flag not come out, he might have passed Johnson for the win. In each of the past two races, he has had a strong chance to win but couldn't nail down the victory. He is a great pick in the next four weeks, a top choice to be a spoiler among the non-Chase drivers.
• Juan Pablo Montoya led for nine laps before he ultimately was nudged out of the top spot by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Montoya still managed an eighth-place showing, his best outing since he placed second at Indianapolis in late July. He has six top-10 finishes and is showing signs of improvement late in the year. Montoya remains 19 points ahead of David Ragan for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors and will work hard to keep that lead in the final events.
• Greg Biffle finished seventh at Martinsville, his best showing ever at a site that usually has been problematic for him. It was his first top-10 finish at the site in 10 starts. He has three top-7 finishes in his past five 2007 races.
• A week after finishing 10th at Charlotte, Michael Waltrip gave his frustrated fantasy owners (any who remain) another respectable showing. He placed 18th at Martinsville and has finished in the top 25 in each of the past three races. It should be noted for salary-cap-style players that Waltrip has finished in the top 20 in three of his past four Atlanta races.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.