By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
It was just a matter of time.
When folks predicted in the first couple of weeks of the 2009 season that Jimmie Johnson was done, that there was no chance he'd contend for a fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship, I simply scoffed.
After all, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have been as close to a sure thing in NASCAR as anything in the last three years. You don't build up that kind of success and then just lie down and let everyone else pass you by.
Rather, Johnson and Knaus are like some of the best Major League Baseball teams: They don't panic when they begin the new season with a slow start. Just like in the stick-and-ball sport, they know it's a long season and there are plenty of games -- or in NASCAR's case, races -- to bounce back.
And that's what Johnson has been doing the last few weeks, steadily climbing back up the standings -- from 31st after the season-opening Daytona 500 to fourth after winning Sunday's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
"We're very relieved to get the first one of the season," Johnson said. "Hopefully there are many more to come. I think it's a huge confidence booster for the new guys that are on our race team. It's a confidence booster for (crew chief Chad Knaus) and me.
"We didn't have an easy day today. We had to stay together as a team, work through a lot of changes, a loss of track position to make the car better and fight for the front, count on pit stops, count on good driving. It took a team effort today."
In so doing, Johnson's 41st career trip to victory lane also represented the first this season for Hendrick Motorsports and the 176th overall for HMS -- on the 25th anniversary of its first Cup race win in 1984. It also was the first win of 2009 for General Motors and its Chevrolet brand on a day that its CEO was asked to resign.
"It took the whole race to get it there," Knaus said. "Jimmie did a really good job, showed a lot of patience, and the pit crew did a great job with the pit stops. I think about every stop we didn't make a major adjustment, they made leads on pit road. It means a lot to win here, 25 years after the first victory for Rick Hendrick, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Hopefully it's only the first of the year."
That was NOT what opposing teams wanted to hear, especially with several Johnson-friendly tracks coming up on the schedule, including next Sunday at Texas, in two weeks at Phoenix, followed by Talladega, Richmond and Darlington.
If he keeps up doing what he did Sunday at Martinsville -- which, by the way, was Johnson's sixth career Cup triumph there -- in a little more than a month from now Johnson could not only have maybe three or four wins under his belt, he also might be back in his usual spot atop the points standings.
"It might sound crazy, and I heard some comments when we were doing interviews on the frontstretch, where people assume and expect us to win," Johnson said. "We don't take this for granted. It's a great track for us. We hoped that we would (win), but you never know. No one would have thought that Jeff (Gordon) would go winless last year. You know, you can't take things for granted."
One thing no one at Hendrick Motorsports is taking for granted is the fact that all four of its Cup entries finished in the top eight Sunday: Johnson first, Gordon fourth, Mark Martin seventh and Dale Earnhardt Jr. eighth.
"Anytime you come to Martinsville and you got four cars and you can finish in the top eight or top 10, it's great," Hendrick said. "All the cars were competitive. You know, you ask for that. You strive for just having cars competitive."
Johnson was his typical patient self at Martinsville, all but stalking Denny Hamlin, looking for the right place to drive past. That move finally came late in the race, and Johnson cruised to what has become another seemingly easy win for the No. 48 Chevrolet.
"I was just chipping away at the little lead (Hamlin) had on me," Johnson said. "I just patiently worked away at him and got in an area where I could try to out-brake him and get into position in turn 3. I got in there alongside of him and he kept coming down to go to the inside line. We made some contact. I think I went up over the curve. We were both sideways. Fortunately, nobody tore anything up."
Well, that's not exactly true. Johnson tore up Hamlin's heart once again. A Virginia native, Hamlin won last spring's race at Martinsville, only to watch Johnson win last fall and again Sunday -- giving the defending Cup champion five wins at Martinsville in the last six races.
"It's really tough, short-track racing," Johnson said. "I think Denny was trying hard to protect his lead, winning in his home state. I wanted to get to the front really bad because I wanted to win one. Also, I want to win for Mr. Hendrick on the 25th anniversary (of Hendrick Motorsports' first win)."