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JOHNSON TARGET IN TWO RACES

Both in the title chase and at Martinsville, the road to victory goes through the No.48 car.

Martinsville Speedway is where Jimmie Johnson started his four-race winning streak a year ago on his way to consecutive championships.

As rain fell Friday and wiped out qualifying, putting the points-leading Johnson on the pole for the second week in a row, the drivers closest to him in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship couldn't help but wonder if a third straight title was almost a foregone conclusion.

"I don't know where Jimmie gets his horseshoes," rival Carl Edwards said, "but he's got amazing luck, and they do everything right, so we just have to hope for something strange to happen."

But Edwards knows, as does everyone else, that time is running out.

After today's Tums QuikPak 500 on NASCAR's shortest, trickiest track, only four events remain, and Johnson will be the defending race champion in three of them.

Tony Stewart, a two-time series champ, said Saturday it's difficult not to look at what Johnson has accomplished over the last three seasons and simply marvel.

"It's hard to win it once," Stewart said of the championship, which he won in 2002 and '05. "To win it two years in a row is extremely hard, and to just be in a position where you have the opportunity to try and win it three years in a row is unbelievable."

But Johnson hasn't opened a prohibitive lead by any stretch.

Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle are in striking range and Edwards, whose six victories are the second most this season, finished just one spot behind Johnson twice in the first five Chase races.

"I think it's 35 points a race we have to make up or something, and that's assuming that Jimmie doesn't have any bad luck," said Edwards, who has finished 29th and 33rd in the last two weeks. "I feel like all we can do now is just go race as hard as we can."

He's not alone, though Stewart said he won't change his approach to racing at all, even while sitting seventh in points and needing to close a 228-point gap in five races.

Nor will Jeff Gordon, who is eighth and 245 points back.

Burton (2006) then Gordon (2007) entered this race with the points lead only to see Johnson pass them. And rivals need to look back only to last year to see that Johnson's edge is not insurmountable.

Gordon led Johnson by 68 points in 2007 and seemed on the road to his fifth title before his Hendrick Motorsports teammate eventually won by 77 points, a swing of 145.

"They've raised the bar and we have to answer that call, be better and run them down," fifth-place Clint Bowyer said. "A team like that is not gonna make a mistake. They're just not."

And the bad news for others is that Johnson has become a comfortable front-runner.

"In the past, I've probably wanted to be in a different position and be a close second or something and not have to have the pressure," he said. "But this Chase, this team, the confidence we have in ourselves and what we've developed over the years and the experience we've been through, that has made me much more comfortable with where we are today."

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