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Johnson wins at Martinsville to close in on title

Oct 19, 2008 - 10:18 PM MARTINSVILLE, Virginia (Ticker) -- Jimmie Johnson took a huge step toward winning a third straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Sunday.

The two-time reigning series champion extended his lead atop the standings to 149 points with four races remaining in the "Chase for the Championship" by easily winning the TUMS QuikPak 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

It was Johnson's fourth win in the past five races held at the at the .526-mile paperclip shaped track. His only other finish outside of Victory Lane during that stretch was a fourth during the March race earlier this season.

"This track has just been good to me," Johnson said. "It's a great car and a great team. I'm very proud of this race team."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second, followed by Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin who won here in March.

The top-five finish ended a tough two-week stretch for Edwards, who touched off the "big one" at Talladega and finished 29th, then ran 33rd last week at Lowe's.

"It's awesome - third place at Martinsville is great for us especially after the painful last two weeks," Edwards said. "The great thing is we can build off this. I think we can win the last four races."

Edwards currently sits fourth in the standings, 198 points behind Johnson.

Johnson, who led 339 of 504 laps, needed to survive a green-white-checkered finish to claim his sixth win of the season and 39th career.

"I was just thinking, 'Don't mess this up,'" Johnson said. "I've been vulnerable here on restarts here so we just focused on the short runs."

Johnson started from the pole after qualifying was rained out Friday and led the first 35 laps before Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon passed him for the lead.

Johnson would lead seven times, taking the point for good on lap 470 from Matt Kenseth with a pass on the frontstretch.

Jeff Burton entered the race 69 points behind Johnson, but was penalized a lap for pitting outside his pit box on lap 463 and wound up 17th. It was his first finish outside of the top-10 during the first six Chase races.

"We were hoping for better," said Burton, who dropped to third in the standings, 152 points behind Johnson. "We didn't run as well as we thought we would, and that's surprising."

Greg Biffle finished 12th and moved up to second in the standings, 149 points out.

"No, I don't (we're out of it). We're gonna come and get them," Biffle said "We've got four more chances and we're going to some of our best places, so they better be on their A game. I'm still confident we can catch (Johnson) for sure."

Even so, the 149-point lead puts Johnson squarely in the drivers seat to become the first driver to win three straight championships since Cale Yarborough accomplished the feat from 1976-78.

"It's getting closer, but it's still not time (to be thinking about winning the title)" Johnson said. "We've just have to keep winning races."

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