With four races remaining in the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season, the fight for the year-long championship appears to be between five drivers.
Jimmie Johnson currently leads the standings with Matt Kenseth just four points behind. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon are also still in contention, as they are all within 34 points of the top spot.
This weekend is a make-or-break race for the four drivers not currently at the top of the standings. While good finishes are important at every race, it is all the more crucial at this weekend's event.
Sunday's contest, the seventh race of the 10-week Chase, takes place at Martinsville Speedway, a track that Johnson has dominated throughout his career and one where a top-10 finish is all but guaranteed.
In 23 career starts at NASCAR's shortest track, Johnson is an eight-time winner, best among active competitors. He has failed to finish inside the top 10 just three times, and other than his first race at this facility back in 2002 he has never finished worse than 12th.
For Kenseth, Busch and Harvick, the three drivers closest to Johnson in the standings, Martinsville has been a mixed bag. Combined, the three drivers have made 68 starts on the sport's oldest speedway. They have just one win (Harvick scored that in 2011) and a total of 27 top-10 finishes, seven more than the total that Johnson has single-handedly amassed.
Gordon has had his fair share of success on the half-mile oval. In 41 starts, he is a seven-time winner, second among active drivers. He is also a 33-time top-10 finisher at the facility.
While Gordon's chances of a finish near the top of the leaderboard are just as good as Johnson's, he is in the worst shape of Johnson's four closest competitors. Gordon enters this event fifth in the standings, needing to pass four other competitors to get into the championship lead.
Clearly the best way for any of these competitors to gain ground on Johnson would be to win this weekend's race. To do that at a track where Johnson has been so good throughout his career, they will almost certainly have to pass him in order to score that victory.
That is easier said than done at Martinsville.
To keep their championship hopes alive, the key for the drivers currently sitting second through fifth in the standings will be to lose as few points as possible this weekend to the five-time series champion.
When it comes to Martinsville Speedway, it has begun to feel like we already know whom the winner will be every time the series goes there and that everyone else is just racing for second place.
Unfortunately for Kenseth, Busch, Harvick and Gordon, if Johnson does what he normally does in Martinsville, not only will they be fighting each other for the runner-up position in the race, but they will also only be fighting for the runner-up spot in the championship.
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