- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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HAMPTON, Ga. -- With bad days like Sunday, Jimmie Johnson won't need any more good ones this year.
His struggle through, and spectacular finish to, the Pep Boys 500 was a study in how championships are won, and what champions are made of.
The runaway Chase leader finally made a blunder, speeding onto the pit road early in the race. A pass-through penalty dropped him back to 30th.
But when his day was done, Johnson had actually padded his points lead to 183 with three races remaining.
And he'd left even race winner Carl Edwards astounded and deflated.
"Who finished second?" Edwards asked blithely in Victory Lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
He truly had no idea. That's how fast Johnson had come up at the end, passing nine cars in the last eight laps.
"Are you kidding me?" Edwards said, his celebration snuffed, when told it was Johnson. "I could have done without that one. ... That's unbelievable."
He looked up at the scoreboard to make sure it was so. Several minutes later, he was still stunned.
"I thought he was going to finish 10th or something," Edwards said. "I was real excited until I looked up at the scoreboard."
"I'm just as shocked as he is," Johnson said.
During the race's final caution period, crew chief Chad Knaus made the decision to pit for four tires, dropping Johnson from eighth to 11th.
"It was a great call and a risky call," Johnson said.
But when the green flag flew with eight laps left, Johnson took off on a wild ride that was anything but conservative points racing.
"We really had the perfect storm come together," Johnson said. "The leaders, there was no way they were going to pit. There was a group of three or four guys who just got tires a couple of laps earlier, and they didn't want to give up track position.
"Tires make such a difference here that I was able to get smoking around the outside and go. That's the hardest I was able to drive my car throughout the race. We could kind of treat it like eight laps of qualifying, and that's really what I did."
He passed the first eight cars easily, but then on the last lap, he really showed he wasn't points racing. Running third and gunning for second, he got Denny Hamlin's car loose, and Hamlin had to fight, Johnson said, "to keep it off of me."
Yet Johnson talked as if the spectacle at the end was all Knaus' doing.
"It just shows Chad's out there racing," Johnson said. "He's not trying to ride around and just get points. He told me to put my cape on, and off we went."
Greg Biffle, who had come here second to Johnson in the standings, had predicted last week that Johnson and the 48 team would have an off day somewhere down the stretch of the Chase.
This appeared to be it, for most of the afternoon, until Johnson got his net gain in points.
Edwards individually gained a little ground -- though not as much as he had hoped at the checkered flag -- and is now Johnson's nearest pursuer, 183 points back.
Johnson had come in with leads of 149 over Biffle and 152 over Jeff Burton. But they fell to 185 and 218 back, respectively, with 10th and 18th place finishes Sunday.
It just shows Chad's out there racing. He's not trying to ride around and just get points. He told me to put my cape on, and off we went.
-- Jimmie Johnson
Johnson caught the speeding penalty only 40 laps into the 325 total, and the pass-through penalty issued by NASCAR dropped him from first to 30th.
"I did a good job of keeping my cool, and Chad did as well," Johnson said.
Methodically as always, they worked their way up to become the first car one lap down, and got a free pass back into the lead lap with 115 down.
From there Johnson hung in the middle of the pack until he finally worked into the top 10 with 65 laps left.
If Edwards didn't notice Johnson flying up, it was because he'd had his hands full with Hamlin late in the race.
Edwards took the lead for keeps by passing Hamlin with a bump-and-run on the next-to-last restart, with 16 laps to go.
"Denny spun his tires a little bit; I spun mine," Edwards said. "Then he spun them some more. I got to his bumper. I pushed on his rear bumper a little bit. Then he went to block the inside and spun the tires again, I guess. That opened the door to the top."
Once Edwards got by, he ran away so easily that even as Johnson was flying up through the field he had no hope of catching Edwards for the win.
"Carl was gone," Johnson said. "I don't think I could have caught him."
But in the end it was Edwards who felt helpless in trying to stop Johnson from becoming the first driver to win three straight NASCAR championships since Cale Yarborough 30 years ago.
"We gotta go win those last three and hope for the best," Edwards said.
"We can't do any more than we did today."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.