Johnson takes control of Chase

Updated: October 18, 2009, 8:03 AM ET
Associated Press

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson has a commanding lead in the race for the Sprint Cup title. He's practically on cruise control to a NASCAR-record fourth consecutive championship.

Yet he refuses to claim this title, even after a "perfect weekend" at Lowe's Motor Speedway gave Johnson his third win in five Chase for the championship races this season. He has a 90-point lead over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin at the halfway point of the 10-race Chase.

"I think it's a nice points lead, but there's no need for anybody to get too excited yet," Johnson said. "We're excited and optimistic, but at the same time, there's a lot of danger out there. One flat tire, one mechanical [problem], Talladega ... I'm not trying to downplay where we're at, but there's five races left.

"There's a lot of races left."

But on a night where most of the championship contenders struggled to stay out of trouble, Johnson was ran another flawless race. He grabbed yet another impressive career milestone Saturday night by closing out a weekend in which he led every practice session and started from the pole with his sixth career victory at Lowe's.

"This was a personal goal of mine, we've been close twice," said crew chief Chad Knaus, who got the Lowe's-sponsored No. 48 back to Victory Lane at Charlotte for the first time since 2005.

The win, Johnson's sixth of the season and 46th overall, moved the Lowe's-sponsored driver into a tie with Buck Baker for 13th on the career victory list.

More importantly, it extended his lead in the standings to 90 points over teammate Mark Martin at the halfway point in the 10-race Chase.

And in more bad news for the competition? They head next to Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson has won five of the last six races.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson capped a perfect weekend with an easy victory and an extended lead in the Chase standings.

"It's definitely not over," third-place finisher Kasey Kahne said. "I mean, anything can happen the rest of the year. But if it doesn't, I think Jimmie is the guy to beat."

So does everyone else.

Matt Kenseth was second, followed by Kahne and Jeff Gordon, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

Martin, who started the race 12 points behind his teammate in the standings, finished 17th in part because of front-end damage received when he ran into the back of Juan Pablo Montoya on an early restart.

It was that kind of night for several title contenders, as eight of the 12 finished outside the top 10 in a rare off night for the Chase drivers.

Montoya, who was third in the standings and just 58 points out of the lead at the start of the race, dropped to sixth and is now 195 points out. He damaged the front and back ends of his car on the restart problem with Martin and Clint Bowyer, and fell two laps down trying to get pit road for repairs.

Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards both blew motors, Greg Biffle was in a late spin and Tony Stewart never contended.

That left it up to Kahne and Gordon to chase down Johnson, and despite some thrilling late restarts, neither came close.

Gordon finished fourth, but lost ground to Johnson in the standings and is now 135 points out as only Martin is within shouting distance of the champion.

"All you really want to do is get maximum points and finish ahead of the guys you're racing in the points," Gordon said. "Other than Jimmie we're doing that. Those guys are on an incredible roll."

It's not the championship race NASCAR hoped for, but nobody seems to have anything for the champion. Even though Hendrick drivers hold down the top three spots, it doesn't seem as if even Martin or Gordon have anything for their teammate.

Montoya hung tight through the first four races, bringing in an average finish of 3.5 through the Chase. But he wound up 35th.

"We had one of the fastest cars [but] there's not much we can do," Montoya said. "We worked as hard as we could, we did all we thought was possible and here you go. Today the best we could was 35th."

Hamlin was in contention until last week, when driver error crashed him out of California. He could have rebounded at Lowe's, where he led 54 laps early only to wind up 42nd after an engine failure. He's 11th in the standings -- 372 points out.

Hamlin was long gone from the track when he posted an apology on his Twitter stream with 60 laps remaining.

"A championship just isn't meant to be for this year," he tweeted.

Edwards, the preseason favorite to dethrone Johnson, remained winless on the season when he struggled the entire race and also retired with an engine problem while running 38th.

"That's a mercy killing there," Edwards said from the garage.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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