Commentary

Johnson puts other contenders on notice: He's back, maybe better than ever

The perfect car, the perfect driver, the perfect storm? Two-time champion Jimmie Johnson served notice to contenders for his throne with a dominating victory Sunday. He is ready to defend his turf, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: September 1, 2008, 11:00 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- There is no truth to the rumor that Jimmie Johnson was driving a Ferrari and the other 42 guys in the Pepsi 500 were in go-karts.

It just looked that way.

Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was unstoppable and uncatchable Sunday night at Auto Club Speedway, winning this event for the second consecutive year.

Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards: You've been served. Johnson intends to make a serious run at that third consecutive Sprint Cup title. He has given notice that he plans to give Busch and Edwards some major competition once the Chase begins in two weeks, where barring another win he will start 50 points behind Busch and 20 behind Edwards.

And he'll do it if his cars are anything like the one he had Sunday.

"This race car was unbelievable," Johnson said. "I'm not sure I've ever had such a dominant car."

Johnson is one of the best drivers in NASCAR, but Miss Daisy probably could have taken the wheel and won in this machine. In an era where the differences between Sprint Cup cars often are infinitesimal, this Chevy was in its own galaxy.

"This is the same car we had at Indianapolis [in July] when we won there," said crew chief Chad Knaus. "But a lot of work has gone into this at Hendrick Motorsports."

Greg Biffle finished second and Denny Hamlin was third, but this was Johnson's show from start to finish. He led 228 laps of the 250-lap event.

The only thing that kept Johnson from winning the race by more than half a lap was eight cautions that brought the field back to him several times after he built huge leads.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREJimmie Johnson celebrates his third victory of the season after winning the Pepsi 500 in his home state of California.

The race even had a caution for a caution light. The second yellow flag came when a row of caution lights broke off the catch fencing from the gusty winds. Or maybe it was the force of Johnson's car whizzing by.

Johnson built a 10.6-second lead after 145 laps. Only 18 cars were on the lead lap, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was about to go a lap down when a debris caution came out on Lap 146.

But Johnson easily built another lead on the next restart. When a caution flag flew with 89 laps to go, the other contenders decided to use some strategy to get in front of him.

Five cars took two tires while Johnson took four, dropping him to sixth with 85 laps to go. After one lap, Johnson was fourth. After two laps he was second. He zoomed by Biffle for the lead before completing a third lap.

So much for strategy. See ya, boys.

Just to show it wasn't a fluke, Johnson did the same thing again a few laps later, but this time he restarted sixth when the five cars in front of him also had four fresh tires.

Johnson's jack man, Kenneth Purcell, got his left leg caught in the air hose on the pit stop with 68 laps remaining, enabling five cars to beat Johnson off pit road.

After one lap on the restart, Johnson was third. After two laps he was second, and he passed Biffle on the inside to get back in front on the third lap.

The tires were all equal. The cars were not.

Biffle's team won the award for the best pit crew of the night, beating Johnson off pit road one final time before a restart with 28 laps remaining.

Not that it mattered. Johnson was back in front in half a lap.

"I drove as hard as I've driven in a long time," Biffle said. "But the 48 was phenomenal. We see that happen every once in a while. A guy gets it set up just right and the car gets running good."

Running good? This car was running like Usain Bolt with a 30-mph tailwind. No Hendrick Motorsports car has run this well this season.

I'm happy to see people are considering us a championship contender again. Kyle and Carl have dominated things and we haven't caught them yet, but we're doing the right things now.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"Very seldom do you have a car this good," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "We haven't before now. This [new car] has made a lot of people pull their hair out. It was supposed to be easier than this."

Hendrick said his organization got behind on the new car last season while concentrating on Johnson and Jeff Gordon battling for the championship.

"We have worked harder this year than last year in trying to figure this car out," Hendrick said. "It's been frustrating. This car is so temperamental. You have to figure out as a crew chief and driver what it likes. I can't remember a year where we have thrown more things at it, and sometimes the more you do the further back you get."

Whatever they did with the car Johnson drove Sunday was equivalent to winning the lottery. And Johnson hopes it sets him up to challenge Busch and Edwards for the Cup title.

"I'm happy to see people are considering us a championship contender again," Johnson said. "Kyle and Carl have dominated things and we haven't caught them yet, but we're doing the right things now."

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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