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Johnson moves closer to title with Phoenix win

Nov 10, 2008 - 1:40 AM PHOENIX (Ticker) -- Jimmie Johnson is on the cusp of a third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship after winning his third straight race at Phoenix International Raceway.

The two-time reigning series champion led a race-high 217 of 313 laps during Sunday's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, crossing the finish line ahead of Kurt Busch after a green-white-checkered finish.

Johnson needs only to finish 36th or better during the season finale at Homestead next week to become the first driver to win three straight series championships since Cale Yarborough accomplished the feat from 1976-78.

"Damn, I wanted to only have to start the race (to win the championship)," said Johnson, who won his seventh race of the season. "But this is still great. Hopefully we get all the nuts and bolts tight and nothing crazy happens."

Jamie McMurray was third, followed by Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin.

Edwards is the lone driver with a mathematical chance to catch Johnson at Homestead, trailing by 141 points heading into the final race.

"We had a great run but Jimmie is just doing a great job," Edwards said. "We just have to keep our heads up. It's possible to catch him, but it's not probable.

"But you never know what can happen."

Johnson's strong "Chase for the Championship" is also working against Edwards. Through the first nine races Johnson has three wins and only one finish out of the top-10 - a 15th at Texas last week.

Johnson was able to secure that third win of the Chase on Sunday by taking the lead for good on lap 219 from McMurray and surviving five yellow flags and a red flag situation for a seven-car pileup on lap 273.

Busch had four restarts over the final 25 laps to catch and pass Johnson, but could not overtake him.

"We had plenty of opportunities to go for Jimmie," Busch said. "We put up a fight and I'm proud to finish second, but Jimmie is just putting a whuppin' on everybody right now."

The final caution flew on lap 305 when Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth both spun, collecting Robby Gordon and A.J. Allmendinger in the process.

But Johnson was able to barely hold off Busch's last-ditch effort on the restart, at one point almost getting sideways, to eventually cross the start/finish line by a mere .296 seconds.

"I didn't want to do anything stupid, I knew the No. 2 car (Busch) was hungry (for a win)," Johnson said. "But I knew I'd get 10 more points for the victory."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and David Ragan rounded out the top-10.

Greg Biffle, who entered the race third in points, finished 11th and was eliminated from title contention. He now trails Johnson by 203 points.

Although Johnson sat on the pole and eventually led the most laps to earn five bonus points, he had difficulty leading the race for the first time.

McMurray, who qualified second, led the first 21 laps and Busch led 58 of the next 59.

Just as Johnson appeared primed to pass Busch for the lead 37 laps in, a restart was aborted due to a safety truck on the track. A rain shower then blew through the desert, causing almost a half-hour delay.

Johnson finally took his first lead of the race when he got past Busch on lap 81.

"You never know with this sport ... anything can happen," Johnson said. "But this car was just awesome all day.

"This is all so exciting - it's what I've worked ny whole life for."

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