week after teasing his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors with
a 38th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway—his worst of the
season—Jimmie Johnson regained control of his championship quest.
By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
AVONDALE, Ariz.—From his fiasco in Forth Worth, Jimmie Johnson rose like a phoenix in—where else?—Phoenix.
A week after teasing his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors with a 38th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway—his worst of the season—Johnson regained control of his championship run by winning Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
In a dominating performance in which he led 238 of 312 laps, Johnson increased his advantage over fourth-place finisher Mark Martin (second in the standings) to 108 points. With a finish of 25th or better in the season finale next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson will lock up his record fourth straight championship.
Johnson, who won for the seventh time this season and scored the maximum 195 points (winning and leading the most laps) for the fourth time in the Chase, will eliminate the other 10 Chase competitors as soon as he takes the green flag at Homestead.
The victory was the 47th of Johnson’s career, breaking a tie with Buck Baker for 13th on the career win list.
“First of all, I have to thank this race team for having the strength and mental attitude and everything that they do to bounce back from last week and show up and just put a butt-kicking on everybody today,” Johnson said.
“At the start of the race, we were a little loose but still running second or third. As soon as we put new tires on, the car came to life. We made a couple of small adjustments that really, really helped it, and I could get out to a nice comfortable lead, ride, protect what I had, work my way through traffic—not with ease, but better than other guys.”
The race ran caution-free for the final 134 laps. Johnson lost the lead briefly when he pitted for four tires and fuel on Lap 243 at the 1-mile track, but he regained it on Lap 248 when Matt Kenseth came to pit road.
Johnson kept his No. 48 Chevrolet out front the rest of the way, as third-place finisher Denny Hamlin and runner-up Jeff Burton, who passed Hamlin for second on Lap 284, took turns in pursuit. Johnson’s only anxious moments came when Hamlin teammate rookie Joey Logano made Johnson work especially hard to complete a pass.
“I was trying to be smart through traffic,” Johnson said, “and the 20 car (Logano)—I’m not sure if he was just trying to stay two laps down and didn’t want to go three laps down, or if he was really trying to help his teammate out—but, either way, the 11 car (Hamlin) caught me. Once I cleared him (Logano), I got back going, and everything was fine. But the 20 car wasn’t being all that friendly.”
Johnson, who started third Sunday, plans to take an aggressive approach to qualifying at Homestead to try to avoid a repeat of the early crash that took him out at Texas.
“I think qualifying 12th (at Texas)—even though that’s a good qualifying spot—put us in harm’s way, and I was a little cautious, maybe, in qualifying,” Johnson said. “We need to show up down there and treat it like any other race.
“The farther forward we start, the better off we’re going to be, track-position-wise, the better pit stall selection we’re going to have. Until we get in the race and see what we really have, we’re going to treat it like any other race and just go as fast as we can.”
Notes: Johnson’s margin of victory over Burton was 1.033 seconds. … Polesitter Martin Truex Jr. finished fifth, his first top five of the year in his next-to-last race for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Truex will drive Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 Toyota next year. … Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon and David Reutimann finished sixth through 10th, respectively.