Commentary

Johnson wins, Gordon survives and Chase only gets tighter

Jimmie Johnson won -- again. Jeff Gordon hung on to the points lead -- still. That they accomplished that much when neither had a good car Sunday speaks volumes, writes David Newton.

Updated: October 29, 2007, 12:55 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jimmie Johnson admittedly had a fifth- to eighth-place car most of Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Teammate Jeff Gordon spent most of this Chamber of Commerce afternoon complaining about the poor handling of his car.

Johnson won for the second straight week.

Gordon finished seventh.

Perhaps that's why the Hendrick Motorsports teammates have turned the Chase for the Nextel Cup into a two-man show.

"If a bad day for us is seventh, I'll be very happy with that for the next three races," said Gordon, who has a nine-point lead over Johnson with races remaining at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. "It's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out."

To those who say the Chase has become boring because only two of the 12 drivers have a realistic shot at winning, they should note that this is the closest the top two drivers have been leaving Atlanta since NASCAR implemented this playoff system in 2004.

Kurt Busch led Johnson by 59 points in the inaugural Chase. Tony Stewart had a 43-point lead over Johnson in 2005. Matt Kenseth had a 26-point advantage over Johnson a year ago.

Given the way Johnson and Gordon have performed all year, there's no reason to think this won't come down to the final lap at Homestead.

If fans think that's boring, they should remember that, without the Chase, Gordon would have a lead of almost 500 points.

"It sure hasn't take any drama out of it for us," said team owner Rick Hendrick, reminding people that he saw a Johnson fan throwing a beer can at a Gordon fan after Gordon won at Talladega three weeks ago. "I hope it hasn't for the fans."

Johnson, who won for the eighth time this season, agreed.

"There is more drama that you have two teammates racing," he said.

Cutting To The Chase

Chase time is definitely Jimmie Johnson time. Johnson has won nine Chase races, five more than any other driver.

All-Time Chase Wins
Driver Wins
Jimmie Johnson 9
Greg Biffle 4
Jeff Gordon 3
Carl Edwards 3
Tony Stewart 3

In all likelihood, it will come down to something as simple as pit strategy or avoiding a wreck, as was the case at Atlanta.

Johnson was second with three laps remaining after electing to take just two tires on the final pit stop. He then avoided race leader Denny Hamlin, who did not pit, when Hamlin's car sputtered on the restart because -- as was determined later by NASCAR -- water was in the fuel.

Martin Truex Jr. didn't avoid Hamlin, though, slamming into the rear of his car and spoiling a day on which Truex led a race-high 135 laps.

That put Johnson in the lead for a green-white-checkered finish, which ended after less than half a lap because the left rear wheel flew off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car, freezing the field.

No, two top-10s on a day when Johnson and Gordon spent a good part of the day running 15th to 21st wasn't bad.

"When we were walking in here, I asked Jeff where did he finish," second-place finisher Carl Edwards said. "He said seventh. I couldn't believe it. He was running 18th the last time I saw."

Johnson was 17th with 172 laps remaining when crew chief Chad Knaus came over the in-car radio and told him to keep doing what he was doing.

"With about 100 laps remaining, you can take off," Knaus said.

Gordon was 19th with 99 laps remaining when his crew chief, Steve Letarte, radioed him with encouragement.

"You're doing it right," he said. "We're going to keep on doing it and fight to the end."

It's that willingness to keep fighting, to keep finding ways to get better, that has enabled Johnson and Gordon to combine for 14 wins and an incredible 38 top-5s.

And it's not just those two. Outgoing teammate Kyle Busch was in position to win this one until a mistake on pit road by his jack man with six laps remaining.

"When I looked out there at one point, all three of our cars were in the top six," Hendrick said. "And then Casey Mears was 12th. That's our goal, to try to run up front."

As long as Johnson and Gordon continue to run up front, nobody can catch them. Nobody realistically can anyhow with third-place Clint Bowyer 111 back after turning a bad day into a sixth-place finish and everybody else 261 or more back.

The Chase for Gordon and Johnson is really simple. Finish ahead of the other for three weeks and collect the hardware.

Jeff Gordon

All I can say is when we he had a [53-point] lead coming in, we didn't feel like we had a lead and the pressure was on. Now, we have a nine-point lead and the pressure is on even more.

-- Jeff Gordon

"Oh, yeah," Gordon said. "That sounds simple. All I can say is when we he had a [53-point] lead coming in, we didn't feel like we had a lead and the pressure was on.

"Now, we have a nine-point lead and the pressure is on even more."

Johnson doesn't appear to be feeling pressure. He was almost giddy, as one might expect from someone who trimmed Gordon's lead to almost nothing and raised what he hopes will be at least $1 million to donate to the American Red Cross for its relief efforts in fire-ravaged California.

"Today was a great day in a lot of fronts," said Johnson, who donated his winnings -- a gift that will be matched by Hendrick, Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith and others -- to the Red Cross.

"We took a big bite out of Jeff's lead today. I just think it's going to be a fight to the end."

So does Gordon, who was happy to leave Atlanta with the points lead.

"I think we dodged a bullet," he said. "I think Jimmie dodged a bullet, too. There were times he wasn't really that great. Yeah, we both kind of went through our cycles today and fought our way back up front."

Look for more of the same the next three weeks. And if all goes accordingly, the finale at Homestead could be one of the most exciting ever.

"I know fans would love it to be a three-, five-man race coming to Homestead," Johnson said. "For us at Hendrick Motorsports, we'd like to keep it a two-car race."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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