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Johnson clinches spot in the Chase with fifth win of season

9/3/2007 - NASCAR

FONTANA, Calif. -- After going four months without a
victory, Jimmie Johnson picked a great time to get back to Victory
Circle.

The reigning NASCAR Nextel Cup champion came on strong at the
end of Sunday night's 250-lap race, grabbing his series-leading
fifth victory of the season, clinching a spot in the Chase for the
championship and guaranteeing he will be no worse than a tie for
the top seed in the 10-race playoff.

Johnson dominated the second half of the Sharp Aquos 500, a race
that began in bright sunshine with temperatures over 100 degrees
and finished under the lights with the night not much cooler. It
was his his first win since May 6 at Richmond.

"We've been close," Johnson said of the long victory drought.
"We've been running good. But it was nice to get the job done
tonight.

"Historically, we start the season strong, have a little bit of
a struggle when we get to the warm weather and then get it going
again. It seems like that's the way it's going and I'm just glad to
be back in Victory Circle."

This win was particularly important, with NASCAR awarding a
10-point bonus for each win this season in seeding the 12 drivers
who will compete in the Chase. If the Chase began next week,
Johnson would be the top seed, with 10 more points than Hendrick
Motorsports teammate and series points leader Jeff Gordon, who has
four wins.

"We're fortunate to be in that situation," Johnson said.
"That's very satisfying. The season is all about a championship,
especially when you get in the Chase. It's time for the pressure to
pick up and the hard work to start. And my guys are ready for it."

There was some shuffling at the bottom of the Chase contenders,
with Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch each moving up one spot to
10th and 11th, respectively, while Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick
slipped from 10th to 12th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., began and ended the race in 13th, despite a
solid fifth-place finish. But he did cut his margin from 158 behind
Busch coming in to 128 behind Harvick heading into next Saturday
night's race at Richmond, the final event before the start of the
stock car playoff.

"It was so hot out there you kind of get aggravated," said
Earnhardt, who looked completely drained after getting out of his
car. "I'm tired, real tired."

Told his point deficit heading to Richmond, Junior said, "I
don't know much about the system, I never cared to. I just go out
there and run as hard as I can. It doesn't look like we're going to
make it, but we're not going to quit trying until they tell us
we're not [in it]."

Johnson, who took the lead for good with 20 laps left after a series of green flag
pit stops, led 65 of the last 82 laps on the two-mile oval.
He easily held off runner-up Carl Edwards in the waning laps,
although it appeared for a while that Edwards might overtake him.

"I thought he was going to be a sitting duck," said Edwards,
who overcame a pit collision with rookie Juan Pablo Montoya early
in the race. "I said on the radio that I thought it was going to
be me and Kyle [Busch]. It's immensely disappointing. Running
second is terrible."

Kyle Busch finished third, followed by Jeff Burton, Earnhardt,
Matt Kenseth, Truex, Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch. Harvick finished
13th.

Kurt Busch, who started from the pole, was happy to be closer to
clinching a spot in the Chase -- 13 points ahead of Harvick and only
20 behind Truex in 10th and 25 behind Clint Bowyer in ninth.

"I feel pretty solid," he said. "You know there's a guy
behind us now to give us a little bit of cushion. It's going to be
an interesting race in Richmond."