Jimmie Johnson knows how to win on the half-mile track at Martinsville Speedway.
He knows how to win a Sprint Cup championship.
Both facts were in clear evidence Sunday.
The five-time champion displayed his mastery of the short track – using the 500 laps to learn about his car, understand his competition, get out of the way or go for the lead – in winning the Tums Fast Relief 500 and taking the lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“We’re getting smarter and better. We did what we needed to today, for sure,” he said after the victory, his seventh at Martinsville, in advance of this weekend’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“I think a true testament to Jimmie is the way he can go out there and manage the race, even if we’re not leading, fall back if we need to for a little bit, then he’s able to charge back up after he gets his groove and some of the other guys burn their tires off,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “Jimmie’s experience came into play today, maybe more so than we’ve seen in the Chase so far.
“That’s pretty impressive, to be able to come back from the race car we had, where he could have easily pushed the car too hard, burned up the brakes, blown a right front tire, and he had the wherewithal not to do that.”
The idea that Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet team is getting smarter and better might be hard to imagine.
He won five straight championships from 2006 to 2010, and he was sixth last year.
But it is hard to argue against the idea.
He has been second, second, fourth, 17th, third, ninth and first in the seven Chase races. Only the craziness of the final lap at Talladega prevented a better finish than 17th.
But when he came out of that mess still in second in the points standings, his path to a sixth championship in seven years seemed clearer than ever.
He would be good at Charlotte – he always is – good at Kansas – a mile-and-a-half track – and good at Martinsville.
He wound up third at Charlotte, where he won the All-Star race in the summer, ninth at Kansas despite a car that needed constant repair, and then won at Martinsville.
First in the points.
“We need every point we can get – we got almost every one this weekend, so that’s cool,” Johnson said. “We just race hard. Texas is a total opposite from a setup standpoint than what we have here, demands on the car, the way you drive. We’ll take whatever mental momentum and confidence that today’s race brings us.”
The AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday is another mile-and-a-half race where Johnson can be good. He has only one career win at Fort Worth, but he can win here. Even if he doesn’t, he has four wins at Phoenix, the next stop.
“We have to be the best to be the champions,” Johnson said. “I think we’re showing we’re in form and ready to do that.”
Not so hard to imagine right now.