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Johnson takes firm control of NASCAR's Chase with Phoenix win

Nov 12, 2007 - 2:39 AM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

AVONDALE, Arizona (Ticker) It may not be official but Jimmie Johnson couldn't be blamed if he started to celebrate his second-straight NASCAR Nextel Cup title a week early.

Johnson took firm hold of the championship when he won Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500.

It was Johnson's fourth straight victory and his 10th win this season - the most in both categories since Jeff Gordon won four-in-a-row and scored 13 wins in his 1998 title season. It was the 33rd checkered flag of his Nextel Cup career.

Johnson can clinch the champions with an 18th-place finish at Homestead regardless of what Gordon does. If Johnson leads a lap, that drops to 19th or better, and if he lead the most laps, all he has to finish is 21st or better.

"I'm just trying to keep it simple and not get caught up in things," Johnson said. "I hope I can do that this week. Show up, keep it simple and get in the race car and go. I don't want to act like it's our championship yet. We have a nice margin in the points right now, but 400 miles, that's my goal.

"I have to run 400 miles and go nuts after that."

Johnson took the lead when he passed Martin Truex Jr. with 24 laps to go. Once in the lead, he sped off to the win and dealt a crippling blow to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon's bid for a fifth Cup title.

Gordon finished 10th and now trails Johnson by 86 points with one race remaining in the season.

"It's over," Gordon said of his title bid, even though he is mathematically alive for the title. "Unless you lead every lap and beat Jimmie Johnson and win the race, you don't have a shot at it.

"Those guys are on an unbelievable roll."

Johnson's Chevrolet Impala finished 0.870-seconds ahead of Greg Biffle's Ford Fusion. Matt Kenseth's Ford was third followed by Tony Stewart's Chevrolet and Ryan Newman's Dodge Avenger.

Gordon was a lap down with 100 laps to go when he pitted early. Meantime, Johnson was in the lead, spelling a potential doom scenario for Gordon's bid for the title.

While Gordon is conceding the championship, Johnson isn't taking anything for granted.

"We need every point," Johnson said. "We can't let our guard down.

"With the lead that we have it's a nice comfortable position to be in but we have to run 400 miles," Johnson said. "It takes some of the pressure off but we have to o out there, run the race and do our own thing. We'll just go for winning five in a row. I don't want to act like it's a championship yet.

"It's 400 miles, that's what I have to accomplish. We have to keep it simple for one more weekend."

Johnson pitted on lap 220, needed tires more than fuel. That was a big break for Gordon, who got back on the lead lap. Johnson's stop put Truex back in front but he pitted one lap later.

The green flag waved with 73 laps to go with Ryan Newman's Dodge in the lead. Johnson's Chevy was fifth and Gordon was eighth.

Newman's fuel-only pit strategy gave him the lead but Kenseth went side-by-side to wrest the lead from him.

Gordon's Chevy suffered damage when some hard racing with teammate Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick pushed in the right-front fender, causing his tire to smoke with 50 laps to go.

Gordon got a huge break from the NASCAR officials when they waved the yellow flag for debris with 43 laps to go.

Truex and Johnny Sauter stayed on the track while the rest of the competitors pitted. Gordon came out of the pits 12th while Johnson was fifth.

The green flag waved on lap 275 with Truex being chased by Sauter.

Johnson overcame near disaster in a three-wide battle with Matt Kenseth and Aric Almirola but Johnson was able to split the difference and avoid confrontation. The same couldn't be said for Gordon, whose wounded fender got rubbed by Sauter with 26 laps to go.

By then, it didn't matter because Johnson was ready to put an early end to his teammate's hopes of winning a fifth Cup title.

"We thought the 24 (Gordon) would get some points back on us today," Johnson admitted.

Gordon entered the race trailing his Hendrick teammate by 30 points but was unable to get his Chevy to adjust to the flat Phoenix oval.

"This car is impossible to adjust once you get it off," Gordon said of the Car of Tomorrow. "There is no adjustment in it. We're pretty limited on what we could do.

"It seemed like everything we did to it just made it worse."

While Gordon's car got worse the longer it ran, Johnson's was the exact opposite. That allowed him to become the first double-digit winner in a single season in nine years.

Johnson won $245,011 after leading just two times for 55 laps.

Kenseth led the most laps, three for 93 in the 312-lap contest.

There were 10 lead changes among six drivers and 10 caution periods for 42 laps.

This was the first NASCAR race since 1964 that featured three former Indianapolis 500 winners, with 2000 Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya finishing first in class at 17th in a Dodge. Three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indy winner Sam Hornish Jr. competed in his first Nextel Cup race and finished 30th, two laps down.

"I just wanted to go out there and finish the race," Hornish said. "I said a couple times finishing in the top 30 would be a pretty good day as far as I was concerned.

"I guess we hit it right on the head."

Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 Indianapolis winner, crashed with Kasey Kahne and finished 41st.

And as the "one-to-go-signal" is given for the 2007 Nextel Cup season, all but Johnson and Gordon have been officially eliminated from championship contention.

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