Commentary

Johnson wins convincingly to lock up top spot to start the Chase

Team owner Rick Hendrick was feeling the heat of not winning in 10 races. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson fought through the heat at California Speedway to win and assure he will start the Chase in the top spot, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: September 3, 2007, 1:42 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- Race day included a mild earthquake near California Speedway and heat that felt as though it could rival the surface of the sun.

Ahhh, the grandeur and allure of Southern California on Labor Day weekend.

It wasn't exactly paradise for the Sharp AQUOS 500, not that it mattered to race winner Jimmie Johnson. The Hendrick Motorsports slump is over.

Rick Hendrick is a calm guy most of the time, but he wasn't a happy man last week after his drivers had a miserable night at Bristol, extending the team's losing streak to 10 races.

Johnson relieved his boss's pain and gave Hendrick a little bonus. Johnson's victory guaranteed Hendrick that at least one of his drivers will start the Chase for the Nextel Cup on top.

Johnson's fifth victory of the season came 14 events after his fourth win, but it assured the defending Cup champion of the No. 1 spot when the Chase begins in two weeks.

Only teammate Jeff Gordon can tie Johnson for that position if Gordon wins at Richmond next weekend in the final race before the playoff begins.

"It's very satisfying," Johnson said. "The season is all about the championship. Now it's time for the pressure to pick up and the hard work to start. We're hitting our stride at the right time."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced well at the right time, but it might not be enough. He had a strong fifth-place finish Sunday, but heads to Richmond 128 points behind Kevin Harvick for the 12th and final Chase spot.

"It was hot, and I'm tired," Earnhardt said. "Real tired. I'd like to thank my team. It's so hot out there that you get aggravated. It doesn't look like we're gonna make [the Chase], but we won't quit trying."

Kurt Busch, who finished ninth, is 141 points ahead of Earnhardt. Busch needs to finish just 36th at Richmond and Harvick 32nd to lock Earnhardt out of the Chase.

Junior's time at Dale Earnhardt Inc. likely will end without a playoff run, but he only needs to look at Sunday's winner to see what the future could hold for him as a member of Hendrick Motorsports beginning next season.

For Johnson, it was the perfect ending to a special week in front of the home-state fans. He had his annual charity golf tournament, raising $500,000. Johnson also was inducted into his high school's Hall of Fame in El Cajon, Calif., the first time he has stepped into those halls since 1993.

Carl Edwards was second Sunday, and Johnson's lame-duck teammate, Kyle Busch, locked in his Chase spot with a third-place finish.

Kyle mistakenly revealed Friday that his 2008 team, Joe Gibbs Racing, will be moving to Toyota next year. When you watch Busch drive, it's easy to understand why a team owner might put up with a few little indiscretions from the young racer.

The remote chance Ryan Newman had of making the Chase field ended when he suffered engine problems with 55 laps to go and headed for the garage.

Jimmie Johnson
The season is all about the championship. Now it's time for the pressure to pick up and the hard work to start. We're hitting our stride at the right time.

Jimmie Johnson

"It would have been a miraculous effort for us to make up enough ground to get in it," Newman said of his Chase hopes. "But I'll still try as hard as I can on every lap."

Trying on every lap Sunday was a sweaty chore. Temperatures reached 110 degrees on pit road before the race began, and the track temperature was more than 140 degrees.

The extreme heat took its toll on engines and tires, causing two tire failures in the first 72 laps.

The first half of the event was similar to racing in an inferno, but that feeling became a reality for Michael Waltrip when he blew a left-front tire on Lap 40. The shredding rubber ruptured an oil line and started a blaze around the body and inside the car near the shifter.

It isn't easy for 6-foot-5 Waltrip to get out of a car quickly. Safety workers were trying to extinguish the flames and pull Waltrip out. He finally climbed out the window and walked away a little warmer, but otherwise unhurt.

The night's worst crash came with 71 laps to go when six cars, including the No. 24 Chevy of Jeff Gordon, were involved on the frontstretch.

Ricky Rudd was clutching his left arm when he walked to the ambulance for a trip to the infield care center. Rudd's No. 88 Ford got turned around before slamming into the outside wall on the driver's side. Rudd was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation of his arm.

An estimated crowd of 65,000 braved the sweltering conditions. Sunday's race tied the track record with 11 cautions, but the event had a record 16 leaders and a record-tying 30 lead changes.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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