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CUP: Johnson Building Strong Foundation

First driver to win two races this Sprint Cup season? Jimmie Johnson.

Driver to lead the point standings the most times (four) this season? Jimmie Johnson.

Driver who led a personal-record 346 laps in a race Sunday? Jimmie Johnson.

It’s easy to make the case that Johnson, who has had only one sub-par race (Bristol, a 22nd-place finish) in six events this year, is the sport’s big gun as the tour moves on to Texas Motor Speedway this week for a 500-mile race.

Although two drivers (Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski) have more top fives than Johnson (4-3) and two drivers (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Keselowski) have more top 10s (5-4), it is Johnson who has double victories and the best overall stretch of consistency since the season opened in February.

On Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, he did what he was expected to do – and more – at a track that he and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team essentially have made their playground.

Although Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch pretended to be victory threats Sunday (and Danica Patrick stole some thunder by running much better than many anticipated), Johnson was the man of the moment. He led the final 138 laps (and 346 in all) and, perhaps most remarkably, was never deeper than fourth in the running order.

It was the type of performance that went a level beyond the expected and underlined again that Johnson and his team remain one of the handful that must be considered serious championship contenders.

Crew chief Chad Knaus felt confident enough in his team’s positioning to take a not-so-veiled shot at Denny Hamlin, who also typically runs well at Martinsville, in the winners’ press conference. Hamlin missed the race with an injury and tweeted after the race that Johnson will have a much tougher time at Martinsville in the fall when he (presumably) will be back in his car.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s not Denny, it’s the Gibbs cars (doing well at Martinsville),” Knaus said. “If you look at Matt Kenseth (new to Gibbs this year), he couldn’t get out of his own way when he was in a Roush car here, and he went out there today and was making it happen (leading 96 laps). I think it’s probably more car than driver here for that team.

“But Denny does a really good job here. He’s fantastic at the short tracks here, Richmond, a lot of those tracks, and I hate it that Denny is hurt. That’s not the way we want this stuff to go down. But I still think that they’re going to be in the Chase, and I think they’re going to be in contention for the championship.”

If Hamlin does return quickly from his back injury and put himself in position to race in the Chase, chances are he’ll come face to face with Johnson over that closing stretch.

Five-time is rolling.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.