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Johnson wins at Richmond, earns top seed for Chase

Sep 9, 2007 - 5:12 AM By Brit Fryer PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer

RICHMOND, Virginia (Ticker) -- Life will go on without Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the Chase will begin with Jimmie Johnson out front.

Nextel Cup racing's biggest star won't participate in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, as Johnson won Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway to secure his place as the points leader heading into the 10-race showcase.

Johnson is the driver no one wants to get hot, but the defending series champion and his No. 48 Chevrolet are heating up at just the right time. The victory was Johnson's second in a row and sixth of the season. He'll start with a 20-point lead on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon when the Chase begins September 16 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"Everything's working right now," Johnson said. "We're strong on all fronts. We're happy to be hitting our stride at this point in the season."

Tony Stewart's Chevrolet finished second 3.007 seconds behind. The Ford of rookie David Ragan was third, with Gordon's Chevrolet in fourth. Johnny Sauter posted a career-best finish of fifth in his Chevrolet.

"This is going to be the most competitive Chase we've seen," said Johnson, who swept both Richmond races this season. "I just want to be strong and steady and start knocking down top fives starting next weekend and hopefully we can accomplish what we want to win a race or two in the Chase and hopefully be at the top at the end."

Earnhardt needed the run of his life and nearly got it, but he finished a disheartening 30th after the engine in his Chevrolet faded in the final five laps.

Earnhardt also needed disaster to strike his closest competitors in the race to the Chase. He had to gain 148 points on Kevin Harvick and ended 198 points out in 13th. Harvick finished seventh.

For the second time in four years, Earnhardt will not battle for the Nextel Cup even though the Chase field was expanded from 10 to 12 drivers this season.

"We're running good every week. We just haven't been finishing races, said Earnhardt, who's in the final year with his late father's company, Dale Earnhardt Inc. before moving to Hendrick in 2008.

"We ain't in the Chase. We deserve to be in the Chase. I wish I were for my fans. But we'll give them something to cheer about. We race hard. We don't quit. It's just disappointing, man. These dang motors."

Gordon, the runaway leader in the standings entering Richmond, saw his 317-point advantage snatched away. NASCAR seeds the Chase competitors based on 10-point bonuses for each win. That gives Johnson, with a series-high six victories, the lead heading to Loudon.

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

"The teams that are running the best right now are the teams that have a shot at winning the championship," Stewart said. "It's still a matter of performance at the end of the day."

The final race before the Chase provided one dramatic moment that gave Junior Nation a glimmer of hope.

On lap 244, Ryan Newman's Dodge broke sideways along the frontstretch, and oncoming traffic that included Kurt Busch and Harvick. The only two drivers Earnhardt could knock out stacked up and took evasive action.

Juan Pablo Montoya's Dodge rammed Busch from behind, bending the rear end of Busch's Dodge.

Harvick snuck past through the infield, but his Chevrolet collected clumps of grass in its grill. With little air flow into the engine, steam began spewing from underneath Harvick's hood, and the sea of red in the grandstands began to believe.

There was a brief moment of concern from the Harvick camp as the field crept to a red flag to clean up the mess from Montoya's car, which erupted into flames as it came to rest. Harvick immediately pitted to wipe clean the grill and returned to track at the rear of the field.

"It's like a shovel with the splitter on the bottom of the car," Harvick said. "It just filled the grill up solid, and there was water coming out. Most of the crowd wears red, so that's why they were excited."

The damage to Busch's car and the overheating problem for Harvick turned out to be of little consequence. Busch needed to finish 36th to clinch a Chase berth; Harvick 32nd. Both of them finished in the top 10.

"Our heart was beating 1,000 miles per hour after that, Busch said. "Luckily, there was a red flag at that point, and we checked the car out and everything was OK."

Local favorite Denny Hamlin ended up sixth. Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Busch and J.J. Yeley rounded out the top 10.

There were 15 lead changes among 12 drivers, and 12 caution periods that included two red flags gobbled up 70 of the 400 laps. Johnson's average speed was 91.813 mph.

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