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Johnson earns top seed in Chase with Richmond win; Junior done

9/9/2007 - NASCAR

RICHMOND, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson hit his stride at exactly
the right time, winning two straight races to roll into the Chase
for the championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr. never had a chance, the
victim of five faulty motors when his season was on the line.

Now Johnson will run for a second consecutive Nextel Cup title,
while Earnhardt watches from the sidelines for the second time in
three years.

Johnson easily raced to his series-best sixth victory of the
season, winning Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway to
shore up the top seed in the Chase. But Earnhardt, the only driver
mathematically eligible to race his way into contention, suffered
his third blown motor in the past seven races to finish 30th.

"We broke another motor and they seem to fall apart when they
plug 'em into my car," Earnhardt said. "We deserve to be in the
Chase. We race hard. We don't quit. We love racing. That's what we
do.

"It's just disappointing, man. These dang motors."

He's not likely to have those problems when he joins Hendrick
Motorsports next season.

Johnson and Co. have been near flawless this season, and the
defending series champion will start the 10-race title hunt on top
of the standings.

"Everything is working right now," he said. "We're happy to
be hitting our stride at this point in the season."

After a brief summer swoon, Johnson rallied to win last week in
California and then complete a season sweep at Richmond. He
believes this streak will send him into the Chase with the momentum
to hold off the 11 other challengers.

But NASCAR's most popular driver won't be one of them. He was
running as high as second very late in the race, but yet another
blown motor had him in the garage as Johnson crossed the finish
line.

He shared a brief hug with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who is also
his cousin and is following him to Hendrick at the end of the
season.

"Tony Jr. is really upset," he said. "Those crewman are the
guys who put in all the time and effort and they work real hard.
Just to be running so good to make the car better all night, and to
get up to the top five ... to blow up at the end, you know, it's
really hard on them guys, personally, because they put so much into
it."

Earnhardt started the race as the only driver mathematically
eligible to race into the Chase, but the odds were stacked against
him. Kevin Harvick, the driver on the bubble, had to finish 33rd or
worse, combined with a flawless Earnhardt run, for Junior to make
it.

Harvick had two dicey moments -- including a side-trip through
the grass to avoid nemesis Juan Pablo Montoya's spinning car -- but
he recovered to coast to a seventh-place finish to end any
suspense.

"I saw a lot of cars and wrecks and a lot of things that
happened and I knew it was pretty close," Harvick said. "I saw
[Earnhardt] running third, and in my head I knew where we were and
kind of turned it up a little bit."

This "regular-season" finale has been full of excitement since
NASCAR implemented the Chase for the championship in 2004. It sent
several bubble drivers into the race needing miracles to keep their
title hopes intact.

But NASCAR changed the format this year, widening the Chase
field from 10 to 12 drivers and implementing a seeding system that
awarded 10 bonus points for every regular-season victory. It
diluted the drama of this particular race and made it almost
impossible for Earnhardt to race his way in.

He knew it long before he arrived in Richmond, and he seemed
almost resigned to his fate from the start. It means Earnhardt
won't win a championship with DEI, his late father's company.

Although he won two Busch Series championships while his father
was still alive, he's never been higher than third in the Cup
standings.

Earnhardt was solid at times this season, but the motor failures
derailed his efforts.

"We deserved to be in the Chase," he said. "We ran top-five
almost every week."

Although the drama was gone, the new format put a premium on
wins and drivers went hard for them every week. Although Jeff Gordon dominated the standings all season long, his points lead is
gone because Johnson, his teammate, won two more races than he did.

Gordon, the four-time series champion, will be seeded second -- just 20 points behind Johnson.

Tony Stewart, the two-time series champion, will be 30 points
back in third. He missed the Chase last season.

"After missing it last year, we are obviously excited to be
back in," Stewart said. "We never in our wildest dreams thought
we would miss it last year, so we're happy to be back in the Chase.

Carl Edwards is seeded fourth, followed by Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton,
Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

"Jimmie Johnson's just on a tear right now and he's going to be
tough to catch," said Busch, winner of the inaugural 2004 Chase.
"Johnson is unbelievable right now, Gordon, you can just see that
those two have a distinct advantage right now."

Truex and Bowyer are first-time Chase participants, and Bowyer
is the only driver in the showcase without a win. He'll be 60
points behind Johnson when the series starts next Sunday in New
Hampshire.

Edwards' hot streak came to an end midway through the race when
a part in his motor broke. He wound up 42nd, ending his streak of
four consecutive top-10 finishes, but said he's in good shape for
the Chase.

"Hopefully, we can use this as a little collateral for some
good luck for later in the Chase," he said. "Hopefully, this is
the bad luck now that we don't have in the next 10 races. This team
is going to be very strong."