Johnson earns Chase spot with Fontana win

Jimmie Johnson is California dreamin' about the top spot when the Chase for the Championship starts in two weeks. After claiming the trophy for Sunday's Sharp AQUOS 500 at California Speedway in his home state, Johnson clinched his spot in the...

Jimmie Johnson is California dreamin' about the top spot when the Chase for the Championship starts in two weeks.

After claiming the trophy for Sunday's Sharp AQUOS 500 at California Speedway in his home state, Johnson clinched his spot in the Chase for the Championship. It was his series-leading fifth win of the season and unless teammate Jeff Gordon wins next week in Richmond, Johnson will start the Chase in the top spot.

Johnson led 87 laps, including the final 20 to grab his first win since Richmond in May. He also took the checkered flag in Las Vegas, Atlanta and Martinsville in a four-race stretch at the start of the season.

"This is a special week for the Lowe's team, for us to come back here and get a win at Fontana, my home track," Johnson said. "I couldn't be happier, couldn't be more proud of this race team. It is nice to all these to see all these California fans getting rowdy for us on that cool down lap. I can't thank you guys enough."

Johnson started on the outside of the front row and took the lead on pit road after a lightning-quick stop under caution on lap 112. He struggled a bit with his set-up until the final 100 laps when his car grabbed hold of the changing track conditions.

"I think in the middle part of the race we were real quick on short runs, probably one of the better cars but in the long run would burn the right rear tire off of it," Johnson said. "As the track changed, we made some small changes and we got better and better. We adjusted the car to run at the bottom and it paid off at the end."

Johnson was thrilled to get back to victory lane after a 17-race stretch without a win.

"We've been close; we've been running good," said Johnson, who broke out of a mid-season funk with four top-five finishes in the past six races. "It's nice to get the job done and historically we get off to a great start, have a slow summer and finish up strong and it looks like for whatever reason, our cycle is coming back. I'm glad we are back in victory lane. I didn't think we wouldn't get back in victory lane, but it is nice to get back."

Carl Edwards started 19th and rebounded from a pit road incident with Juan Pablo Montoya that dropped him back to 35th. He rallied for a second place finish.

"I think it says a lot," said Edwards, who won last week at Bristol. "I'm just really proud of my guys. Hopefully this Chase goes as well as this race did."

Edwards had a great race car near the end. He was gaining on Johnson in the closing laps, but didn't have enough to take the lead.

"It's immensely disappointing (to finish second)," said Edwards, who claimed his fourth straight top-eight finish. "Running second is terrible. I just hope we run this well in the Chase. It's going to be an awesome year."

Kyle Busch had a contending car throughout most of the race and led the most laps, but bumped the wall in the closing laps and didn't have enough to catch Johnson. He finished third.

"We were really, really good," said Busch, who hasn't finished outside of the top 13 in the past 12 races. "It feels good. It was really, really good all night long. We had a great chance there to win the race. We were catching Jimmie there at the end of the race. I just got in to turn three there a little high, a little hot, got us in the grey stuff up there, got loose and tagged the wall. Hit it with the back, hit it with the front and just killed our aerodynamics, so we were just struggling from there."

Jeff Burton started 15th and jumped up to grab a fourth place finish despite battling a loose handling condition late in the race.

"We had a good run," said Burton, who picked up his first top-5 finish since Infineon in June. "I thought at times we had a car good enough to win. We got a real aggressive on that last change and got too loose. But I am glad we got too loose, but I am glad we got too loose instead of stay too tight. I feel good what we did tonight. Hopefully we can build on it."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept his Chase for the Championship hopes alive when he finished fifth and gained 30 points on the 12th and final spot in the Chase.

"It's a good job for the team," said Earnhardt, who led at two different times during the race. "It was so damn hot out here all weekend, and we were fast through the entire 500 miles. We were good all night, but the car was never quite perfect. It was either too loose or too tight, but it was a heckuva lot of fun racing like hell for the lead with those guys."

Pole-sitter Kurt Busch finished ninth and jumped past Kevin Harvick for the 12th spot with one race left before the cut-down. Harvick leads Earnhardt by 128 points and would clinch a spot in the Chase by finishing 32nd or better. Busch needs a 36th place finish to lock up his spot in the Chase.

"I don't know much about the (points) system, never have," Earnhardt said. "(I) never cared to. I just go out there as hard as can. It doesn't look like we are going to make it but we aren't going to quit trying until they say we aren't in the Chase."

The real battle throughout the night seemed to be with the heat. The temperature reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the green flag flew.

"When the track temperature is 150 degrees like it was at the start of the race, it makes it the most miserable feeling inside that car," Earnhardt said. "I mean, it was so hot even the smallest thing would really upset me and I apologized to my guys on the radio to warn them I wasn't going to be very pleasant to deal with, even though we were running so well."

Gordon, the championship points leader, started 16th, but was caught up in a multi-car crash on lap 180 and limped home to a 22nd place finish.

"None of these races really mean a whole lot," said Gordon, who locked in his place in the Chase for the Championship three weeks ago. "We'd like to be running better and be out there getting bonus points but this team is going to come with a whole different focus and attitude when we get to New Hampshire."

Gordon admitted that his team is solely focused on the Chase for the Championship, which begins in two weeks.

"It's kind of hard to be in this position because you're in a position where it really doesn't matter; and yet you're a competitor and you go out there and you run hard and try to lead laps and win races," said Gordon, who is looking for his fifth series championship, but first under the new format, which was introduced in 2004. "But you know in the back of your mind that it really doesn't mean anything. So I'm a little disappointed in some of the things we've had happen to us. But at the same time, I'd rather have them happen to us now than in those final 10 races."

Ricky Rudd, who was running in his 900th career Cup race, was also involved in the same incident as Gordon and was taken to the hospital for further evaluation.

Michael Waltrip brought out the fourth caution of the day on lap 38 when his left front tire blew out heading into Turn 3. The tire cut an oil line and Waltrip's car was quickly engulfed in flames. He got out of the car safely and was quickly released from the infield care centre.

"The car filled up with smoke and fire. The crew does such a great job at sealing off the interior of the car. I saw just a little bit of flame by the shifter, nothing much. I'm bigger than the car -- if I try to get out of the car in a hurry it is disastrous. I just took my time and took my stuff off. Right there at the end is when it started to flame and smoke up and I had to get out in a hurry," reflected Waltrip. "That is why I'm so thankful the Car of Tomorrow is here because I just can't get out of these cars in a hurry."

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About this article
Series NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Michael Waltrip , Kevin Harvick , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Carl Edwards , Kyle Busch