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THIS WEEK IN NASCAR

THIS WEEK IN NASCAR The Torch has passed MARTINSVILLE, Va. — It’s a familiar scene: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick, enjoying a victory. At Martinsville Speedway, it’s become the norm. Johnson has claimed five of the past six Sprint Cup races at the oldest track still active on the Sprint Cup Series. Johnson has won with ease and difficulty, joyous triumphs alternated with wistful remorse stemming from the Hendrick Motorsports plane tragedy near here in 2004. He’s been both counted out and presumed dead too early. At the end of long, taxing days at one of NASCAR’s more exhilarating tracks, Johnson repeatedly emerges victorious. Thus, the victories have begun to run together. Martinsville winners receive $11,000 grandfather clocks for their achievements. Johnson must have ringing in his ears. Not many drivers learn the nuances of winning at Martinsville. Only two active drivers have won more than twice at the paper-clip-shaped oval. Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate, has won seven times here, but it’s taken him 33 tries. Johnson’s six victories have all come in a span of 15 Martinsville races. That’s enough to convince Gordon. “He really has just dominated and taken a hold of this place,” said Gordon of Johnson, who has risen from 19 th to fourth in the points standings in just three weeks. Gordon still leads the points, but it will take more than repeated top-five finishes to keep Johnson, who is going for a fourth consecutive championship, at bay. Gordon knows this. The 142 points separating them might as well be fog or mist. Everything starts over with the Chase in the fall. Even at this early point in the season, it’s obvious that Gordon and Johnson are going to make the Chase. Gordon needs to see Victory Lane, too, and it’s been 47 races now. It doesn’t help that they’re friends. Not anymore. Gordon remains the greatest driver of his generation. Forty-seven races without a victory is a drought, a famine and a pestilence combined for a man who has won 81 times in his career. What Gordon must prove is that this is still his generation. *** Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (http://nascar.rbma.com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at nascar_thisweek@yahoo.com. Copyright 2009 King Feature Syndicate Jimmie Johnson, center left, celebrates with team owner Rick Hendrick after winning the NASCAR Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway. (AP photo)

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