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Upon Further Review: Jimmie Johnson gains upper hand

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson’s victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway puts him in a strong spot to dictate who he’ll race for the championship in Miami.

If he could win this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway — where he’s won the last four Chase races — it would take away an automatic spot to the title race for a championship contender and mean at least two drivers would advance through points.

If Kevin Harvick went on to win at Phoenix — where he has won six of the last times — it would leave two spots among reigning series champ Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.

The top two Chase drivers in points not yet qualified for the championship race are Hamlin and Kenseth after Martinsville.

“That chance might be there, but when you have guys like Chase Elliott, Martin Truex and Brad Keselowski that aren’t in the Chase, I’d put those three right up there as favorites going into Texas,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports about being able to control, in a way, who could advance to Miami. “It’s not a guarantee that I’d keep a Chaser from winning.

“We want more trophies, I want our team to deal with as much pressure as possible before Homestead, so the more laps we can lead, the more races we can contend for, the better it’s going to make our team. That’s really our motivation to go down there.”

Johnson is right, should a driver not eligible for the title win, that also would prevent a driver from advancing automatically to the final round — just as Johnson has done each of the past two years since he was out of title contention by the Texas race.

UP AND DOWN

One of the fascinating elements of this Chase has been Joe Gibbs Racing’s inability to win, and Jimmie Johnson’s success after struggling much of the regular season.

Their differences are magnified when looking at when they’ve led laps during the Chase races.

Joe Gibbs Racing cars have led 753 laps in the Chase but only 36.5 percent of those laps have come in the second half of a race. In essence, they’re not controlling races past the halfway mark as they often do in the first half.

Johnson, who has two wins in this Chase, has led 455 laps in the Chase. The key with him is that 78.7 percent of the laps he’s led have come in the second half of the race, showing that he gets stronger as the race progresses and puts himself in position to win races.

Martinsville proved the exception for Joe Gibbs Racing. Its cars led 74 laps in the race’s first half and 153 laps in the race’s second. Yet, JGR still couldn’t beat Johnson, who led the final 92 laps.

Kyle Busch expressed frustration with how teammate Denny Hamlin raced late in Sunday’s race, saying that didn’t help.

“We worked so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson),” a frustrated Busch said afterward. “So, JGR all the way.”

BIG ADVANTAGE?

Although Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville last fall (the opening race in the Round of 8) and had the extra two weeks to focus on the championship finale, it wasn’t enough for him to win the title.

Still, Gordon doesn’t discount the advantage Jimmie Johnson has after Johnson’s victory Sunday.

“I think Homestead is probably the biggest question mark for them,’’ Gordon said, “but the way they’ve been running on the mile-and-a-halves this year and the work they’ll be able to do … man, that’s going to be tough to beat them.’’

Gordon said it was helpful to win at Martinsville last year to give the team more time to prepare for Miami.

“We were just solely focused on Homestead from that point on,’’ Gordon said. “It gives them time just to massage (the Homestead car) and know that car is going to Homestead to race for a championship.’’

PIT STOPS

AJ Allmendinger’s 10th-place finish marked his third consecutive top-10 result. That’s the first time in his career he’s done that.

— Joe Gibbs Racing is winless in the Chase (seven races). This is the organization’s longest winless drought of the season.

Michael McDowell’s 18th-place finish at Martinsville was the best finish of his career at that track. Also, the finish marked his ninth top-20 result of the season. He had three top-20 finishes in the past two seasons (35 starts).

— Jimmie Johnson’s win ended a six-race winless drought at Martinsville Speedway. Since scoring his first Martinsville win in 2004, he’s never gone more than six races between victories there. He has nine career victories at the circuit’s shortest track.

— Denny Hamlin finished third despite a penalty for speeding on pit road. This marked the sixth time this season Hamlin has scored a top-five finish after a penalty in a race.

— Jimmie Johnson’s win continued Ford’s drought at Martinsville Speedway. Ford has not won there in the last 28 races. Ford’s last Martinsville win was with Kurt Busch in 2002.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson involved in minor fender bender while leaving Fontana

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Kyle Larson‘s spectacular weekend at Auto Club Speedway — winning both Saturday’s Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s Auto Club 400 NASCAR Cup event — left him feeling good.

But shortly upon exiting the facility, Larson and several others were involved in a fender-bender right outside the Speedway. Larson was a passenger, not the driver.

No one was injured, Larson tweeted.

But somehow, isn’t that strange fate?

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson’s Fontana win shows continued maturing as a driver

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Kyle Larson finally broke his streak of three straight runner-up finishes with his win in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, the crew discussed his win as well as his maturation as a driver.