Jimmie Johnson is back in control of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
The three-time defending Sprint Cup champion easily pulled away from Jeff Gordon following a restart with three laps left to win the Pepsi 500 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for his fifth victory of the year and 45th overall.
The win was Johnson’s fourth at the 2-mile oval and sent a message to the rest of the contenders he has no plans of giving up his spot atop the series easily.
The native Californian took his time drinking in the moment, doing several burnouts and goofing off along the back straightaway before NASCAR officials reminded him he needed to make a stop in Victory Lane.
“I just wanted to have a little fun with it,” Johnson said.
He certainly earned it after another signature performance at a track he has turned into his own personal playground through the years. He won so effortlessly all Gordon could do afterward was shrug his shoulders.
“What else can you say? They’re the best out there,” Gordon said. “They’ve won the last three championships. They’re going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don’t see how they lose it.”
Johnson, who led 126 laps, dominated the second half of the race but had to sweat out a series of double-file restarts following a number of late-race collisions, including an eight-car pileup that forced a 22-minute red flag with six laps remaining.
Waiting out the delay, Johnson worried he didn’t have enough car to hold off Gordon. He shouldn’t have. His No. 48 Chevrolet roared away from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and he quickly put the rest of the field in his rearview mirror to propel him into the points lead for the first time all season.
“That’s it, that’s what we want,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to keep chipping away.”
Juan Pablo Montoya was third, his fourth straight top-five finish. All that consistency, however, hasn’t helped Montoya, who trails by 58 points, make up any ground on Johnson.
“We have four or five in a row and I’ve been losing points to the leader,” said Montoya. “(You’re not) going to make any points on anybody. Everybody that runs good is going to be there. You just got to make sure you don’t lose any.”
Mark Martin, who started the day with an 18-point lead over Johnson, was fourth and now trails Johnson by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte. Tony Stewart rallied from an early pit-road speeding penalty to finish fifth.
Gordon briefly slipped by Johnson in the later stages but held out no real hope of catching him.
“He’s unbelievable out there,” Gordon said. “From where I was at, he ran away with it today.”
Johnson, however, wasn’t ready to proclaim the Chase over with six weeks left.
“We got maximum points today … but I don’t want to think about it,” he said.
Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers all saw their Chase hopes likely evaporate for good.
Pro Stock driver Mike Edwards went wire-to-wire at the NHRA Virginia Nationals in Dinwiddie, Va., earning the maximum 150 points to all but clinch his first career NHRA Full Throttle Series world championship.
Del Worsham (Funny Car) and Brandon Bernstein (Top Fuel) also won at Virginia Motorsports Park in the fourth of six races in the NHRA playoffs, the Countdown to 1.