Johnson's lead hits 108 points with win
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- When a fluke accident cost Jimmie Johnson a huge chunk of his points lead, he knew there was no more room for error in his bid to win a NASCAR record fourth consecutive championship.
Jimmie Johnson led 238 laps en route to his seventh Cup win of the year. It was also Johnson's fourth victory in the last five races at Phoenix.
|1. Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet|
|2. Jeff Burton, Chevrolet|
|3. Denny Hamlin, Toyota|
|4. Mark Martin, Chevrolet|
|5. Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet|
|6. Kurt Busch, Dodge|
|7. Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet|
|8. Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet|
|9. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet|
|10. David Reutimann, Toyota|
But when it came time to plot a strategy for Phoenix International Raceway, playing it safe was never an option.
Johnson cruised to a dominating victory Sunday that moved him to the edge of history, winning the fourth race of this Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in what his rivals considered a "statement" showing.
"I guess in the end it could be looked at like that," Johnson acknowledged. "It was, 'Hey, guys, you know, we need to step up and get it done ... we need to show what we're made of, we need to get this done.'
"I guess in the end, it could have been a statement that we're sending. I'm very proud of the fact we looked each other in the eyes, knew what we had to do, and delivered."
Johnson was wrecked on the third lap of last week's race at Texas, and sat inside his disabled race car as his crew did a total rebuild of the Chevrolet. He limped to a 38th-place finish that sliced his lead in the standings to just 73 points over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin.
His win at Phoenix -- Johnson's fourth in the last five races here, and seventh victory of the season -- stretched his lead to 108 points over Martin heading into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson needs to finish 25th or better next week to grab a spot in NASCAR's record books.
"We gave it everything we had," said Martin, who finished fourth.
Mike and Mike in the Morning
ESPN NASCAR analyst Rusty Wallace says despite the fact Jimmie Johnson has all but wrapped up his fourth straight Sprint Cup title, he will not race conservatively. He will run the same way he always does.
Martin has gained 108 points on Johnson nine times in 265 races, including last weekend at Texas. He did it once at Homestead, in 2005.
He's not counting on catching Johnson this year, and the sentimental favorite for the championship will likely finish second in the final standings for a fifth time.
He's the only driver still in mathematical contention to catch Johnson. Fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon will be eliminated as soon as Johnson starts next week, and Johnson's win at Phoenix knocked everyone else out of contention.
Despite the harsh reality of his position, Martin is refusing to concede to Johnson and said he won't let up next week in Homestead as he tries to at least stave off Gordon for second in the final standings. But should Johnson coast to the win, Martin will be fine.
"We've still got to go to Homestead and run like this again, because we still have heat behind us, Jeff Gordon, especially," Martin said. "I definitely have been beat by the best -- Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt. It wouldn't embarrass me if it was Jimmie Johnson as well.
Jimmie Johnson stretched his points lead to 108 over teammate Mark Martin (right) with his fourth win of the Chase. Martin finished fourth. Johnson can grab the crown by finishing 25th or better, regardless of how others finish.
|6.||Juan Pablo Montoya||6203||289|
Nobody was surprised to see Johnson in Victory Lane, particularly since he'd had such a rare race the week before.
"Anytime that Jimmie is down is not usually because of performance, it's usually because of an incident like last week," Hamlin said. "There was no doubt in my mind they were going to come this week and make a statement.
"Obviously leading all the laps pretty much and winning the race sends a statement out there that he is the best, that they're not going to be denied this year."
Johnson, though, was reluctant to start any celebration after his win. Although his Hendrick team initially reacted as if the title had been locked up, the No. 48 crew quickly settled down in Victory Lane.
He admitted the win at Phoenix gave him a small sense of relief after "the carpet was jerked out from underneath our feet" at Texas, but it also provided a valuable lesson of not looking too far ahead. Johnson promised to remain focused this entire week and not get too far ahead of himself in thinking about his impending trip into the record books.
"I'm not one to let my mind wander and think about the possibilities -- I've always known I've got to go out and race the race, get it done," he said. "With that in mind, I'm not thinking about a party. When I go home tonight, I'm going to be [mentally] driving laps, what I think I need to do in qualifying trim so I can put my best effort in on Friday. Same thing for race practice on Saturday, and go racing Sunday.
"Texas was such a good lesson. And I hope that the points we lost in Texas isn't what keeps us from winning this championship."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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