Chasing Johnson

Defending champ wins another Chase

CONCORD, N.C. – One by one, the championship contenders struggled to stay out of trouble at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Not Jimmie Johnson, though.

In a career of impressive feats, he grabbed yet another one Saturday night by completing a “perfect weekend” to take control of the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings. The three-time defending series champion led every practice session, started from the pole and then held off his challengers over several late restarts for his third victory in five Chase race this season.

“We just completed the biggest goal of our lives: Perfect weekend,” crew chief Chad Knaus radioed as Johnson crossed the finish line for his sixth win at Lowe’s, but first since 2005.

The win, his sixth of the season and 46th overall, moved the Lowe’s-sponsored driver into a tie with Buck Baker for 13th on the career victory list.

More importantly, it extended his lead in the standings to 90 points over teammate Mark Martin at the halfway point in the 10-race Chase.

And in more bad news for the competition? They head next to Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson has won five of the last six races.

“It’s definitely not over,” third-place finisher Kasey Kahne said. “I mean, anything can happen the rest of the year. But if it doesn’t, I think Jimmie is the guy to beat.”

So does everyone else.

Matt Kenseth was second, followed by Kahne and Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

Martin, who started the race 12 points behind his teammate in the standings, finished 17th in part because of front-end damage received when he ran into the back of Juan Pablo Montoya on an early restart.

It was that kind of night for several title contenders, as eight of the 12 finished outside the top 10 in a rare off night for the Chase drivers.

Montoya, who was third in the standings and just 58 points out of the lead at the start of the race, dropped to sixth and is 195 points out. He damaged the front and back ends of his car on the restart problem with Martin and Clint Bowyer, and fell two laps down trying to get pit road for repairs.

Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards both blew motors, Greg Biffle was in a late spin and Tony Stewart never contended.

That left it up to Kahne and Gordon to chase down Johnson, and despite some thrilling late restarts, neither came close.

Gordon finished fourth, but lost ground to Johnson in the standings and is 135 points out as only Martin is within shouting distance of the champion.

It’s not the championship race NASCAR had hoped for, but nobody seems to have anything for the champion. Even though Hendrick drivers hold down the top three spots in the standings, it doesn’t seem as if even Martin or Gordon have anything for their teammate.

Montoya hung tight through the first four races, bringing in an average finish of 3.5 through the Chase. But he wound up 35th.

“We had one of the fastest cars (but) there’s not much we can do,” Montoya said. “We worked as hard as we could, we did all we thought was possible and here you go. Today the best we could do was 35th.”

Hamlin was in contention until last week, when driver error crashed him out of California. He could have rebounded at Lowe’s, where he led 54 laps early only to wind up 42nd after an engine failure. He’s 11th in the standings and 372 points out.

Hamlin was long gone from the track when he posted an apology on his Twitter stream with 60 laps remaining.

“A championship just isn’t meant to be for this year,” he tweeted.

Edwards, the preseason favorite to dethrone Johnson, remained winless on the season when he struggled the entire race and also retired with an engine problem while running 38th.

“That’s a mercy killing there,” Edwards said from the garage.

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