Jimmie Johnson inched closer to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Championship Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, winning the Checker Auto Parts 500, his fourth straight. Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet came to life in the closing stages...
Jimmie Johnson inched closer to the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Championship Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, winning the Checker Auto Parts 500, his fourth straight. Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet came to life in the closing stages of the race, just as title rival and teammate Jeff Gordon's car slipped back.
"I'm dumbfounded," Johnson said in victory lane after winning his fourth straight race. "I'm just as shocked as everyone [else] and couldn't be more proud of this race team. I'm just excited to do this for Rick for Hendrick Motorsports and all the hard work that goes into it. We're giving everybody something to cheer about and we're having a damn good time doing this."
Johnson was a contender all day long, running inside the top five for much of the race. However, he didn't challenge for the top spot until the end. He benefited from the tenth and final caution of the race on lap 269 to pit for four tires and fuel. Johnson restarted in fifth and wasted no time moving up the leaderboard. He was in prime position to attack, battling Matt Kenseth for second and then getting by Truex for the lead with 23 laps left.
"Everything just came together for us," said Johnson. "We finally figured out what our car wanted, to roll the center a little bit better without sacrificing corner exit. So we were just coming into our groove, and circumstances on tires worked out and off we went."
With the win, Johnson gained 56 points over Gordon, putting him into an 86-point lead heading into the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. All he will need is an 18th place finish or better to claim his second consecutive Nextel Cup crown.
"The lead that we have, it's a nice, comfortable position to be in," Johnson stated. "But we've got to go down there and run 400 miles. That's bottom line. If we don't run the full distance of the race, we're in trouble. It takes some pressure off, it certainly does. But we're going to go down there and try to keep it simple like we've done at this point. Go out there, run our race, do our thing."
Greg Biffle came home second after making a late race charge. The Roush Fenway Racing Ford driver overtook teammate Kenseth with six laps to go and attempted to mount a challenge to Johnson. He had the quicker car in the end, but ultimately ran out of time.
"We were up-and-down, but we had a great car there at the end. We just kept working on it and I wish we would have had better track position where we could have got a crack at the 48 because we definitely had a faster car, but there at the end he just had too much track position on us."
Kenseth, who led a race-high 93 laps, elected to take two tires on the final pit stop. He battled with Johnson but wasn't able to hold his ground late in the race.
"We just needed to be a little faster," Kenseth said. "We kind of got pinned behind that lapped car and got my momentum slowed. Jimmie was able to use him as a pick and get by and once he got by I just couldn't catch him. We were pretty good all day on four tires and we had to put two on there at the end for track position, which was absolutely the right call, and Jimmie's car just had more grip than I did there and I just couldn't quite keep up."
The top five was rounded out by Stewart and Ryan Newman. Kevin Harvick finished sixth while Truex, who elected not to pit during the final yellow, slipped to seventh.
Kyle Busch was trying to make history by becoming the first driver to sweep all three NASCAR-sanctioned races in a weekend. However, he finished eighth in his penultimate race for Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Burton wound up ninth.
Gordon, who failed to lead a lap in Sunday's race, fought through his fare share of drama. He collided with Harvick on lap 260 while battling for eighth place, causing a tire rub to his No. 24 Chevrolet. However, a caution came out just nine laps later, giving Gordon a much-needed break. Restarting in 12th with fresh tires, he gained two positions to finish tenth. Gordon now faces the fact that the championship may be too far out of reach.
The four-time series champion won the spring race at Phoenix but wasn't able to keep up with his teammate this time around, losing even more ground to the No. 48 car in the Chase. He now trails the defending champion by 86 points.
"It's over. Even if we win it, it would be because of their problems," Gordon said. "While we would accept it, we would not want to do it that way. Those guys are flat out killing everybody and you have to give credit where credit's due. We didn't step up and win the races when we needed to. We gave them a run for a while but now we have to figure out how to get the best finish we can at Homestead and end the season off on a positive note going into the off-season."
Only Johnson and Gordon mathematically have a shot at the Cup, meaning that team owner Rick Hendrick is on his way to his seventh series title. Clint Bowyer, who maintains third place in the Chase, finished 11th but has been eliminated from winning the championship.
Three notable former open-wheel drivers gained more experience behind the wheel of the CoT, which becomes the exclusive car of use starting next year. Saturday evening, Sam Hornish Jr. was officially named Penske Racing's third Sprint Cup Series driver for 2008. Making his Cup debut, the three-time IndyCar champion set a goal of a top 30 finish and did just that, coming home in 30th.
"I had a lot of fun out there," Hornish said after the race. "The car ran well all day. The driver's obviously lacking a little bit right now; still learning as much as I can. I am just glad I didn't take anyone out or hit anything. We'll go into Miami with one race under my belt and a little bit less of a rookie, I guess."
Patrick Carpentier, who also qualified on time, drove his Gillett Evernham Motorsports Dodge to a 33rd place result. Fellow countryman Jacques Villeneuve made his second career Cup start but crashed out on lap 136, finishing 41st in his battered Bill Davis Racing Toyota.
Polesitter Carl Edwards led the first 87 laps, looking to be on way to another win. However, his Roush Fenway Racing Ford suffered engine failure, dropping him to a disappointing 42nd place result.
And then there was one. The Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday is the setting for the 36th and final race of the year. Despite holding a comfortable lead in the Chase, Johnson will be going all out, in quest of becoming the first-ever driver to win five Cup races in a row. Gordon, on the other hand, will need Johnson to run into problems in order to have any shot of claiming his fifth Cup title.