Don't blame team owner Rick Hendrick if he's already dusting off a place in the trophy case for this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship hardware.

What Hendrick doesn't know, however, is which man's name will appear on the trophy -- the guy who's won the last three titles, or the AARP-eligible driver who has discovered the fountain of youth in Hendrick's #5 Chevrolet.

Will it be a record fourth straight title for Jimmie Johnson, or a first for Mark Martin, who has finished second in the final standings four times?

The one-two finish by Johnson and Martin in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway was a slap in the face to the other ten drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup field, drivers who thought they might -- just might -- have a chance to break Hendrick's stranglehold on the championship.

Today, that notion is more pipe dream than possibility.

"It's just two races," cautioned Martin, who won the first Chase race at New Hampshire and leads Johnson by ten points. "And I think a first and the second is a pretty good way to come out of the gate. But we've got eight more to go, and all kinds of things can happen.

"You know, I still say that there's twelve (drivers) in it, and twelve can win. It might be a challenge for a couple of the teams that are toward the back right now. But you just don't have any concept, I guess, of how much racing eight races is. It's a lot of racing. A lot of things can happen."

The reality is that a lot of things that normally don't happen to Hendrick cars would have to happen in the final eight races to knock both Martin and Johnson out of title contention. History says that won't be the case.

Ten points separate Martin and Johnson. Juan Pablo Montoya, third in the standings, is 65 points behind Martin, and fourth-place Kurt Busch trails the Chase leader by 75 points. The remaining eight drivers face deficits that range from 106 points (Tony Stewart) to 189 (Kasey Kahne).

It's easy to make a case for Johnson's record fourth straight championship. The series next moves to Kansas Speedway, where Johnson won last year's Chase race. After that, it's Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., one of the No. 48 team's strongest tracks. Johnson won the Labor Day weekend race there in 2007 and 2008, and now the two-mile speedway has replaced Atlanta in the final 10 races.

Johnson won Chase races at Martinsville in each of his three championship seasons. He posted victories at Phoenix in 2007 and 2008 and won at Texas in 2007.

"I certainly hope that our performance today scares some people and affects them in a way that benefits us," Johnson said after Sunday's race.

Count on it.

Martin's numbers at the remaining tracks aren't as impressive. Then again, this is his first season in the No. 5 Hendrick car, and that's the only data that really counts. Martin and Gustafson have shown that they're competitive everywhere, having posted a series-best five victories in the first 28 races.

The key to the championship for Martin is Talladega, his least favorite track, a venue Martin avoided like the plague during his two years of part-time driving in 2007 and 2008. In his only race there since 2006, in April, Martin was involved in an early crash, completed six laps and finished 43rd. A repeat performance Nov. 1 would end his championship run.

Talladega aside, Martin and Johnson have positioned themselves for a two-way battle for the title, and it shouldn't take much imagination for Hendrick to visualise another championship trophy next to the three Johnson earned with his record-tying run over the last three seasons.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News