Johnson Makes It Two Straight Wins, Takes Aim At Fourth Title
By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
Concord, N.C. – For Jimmie Johnson, it was the perfect race weekend. For the rest of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup competitors, it was a recurring nightmare.
Johnson took another big step toward a record fourth consecutive Cup championship with a solid victory Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway as the 10-race Chase for the championship reached its halfway point.
It was a competitive race but, in the end, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was just as strong as advertised after leading every practice session and winning the pole. Johnson led 92 of the 334 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
“That’s been a goal of mine to have a perfect weekend like that,’’ said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “We’ve been close but never quite made it. It’s pretty cool.’’
Johnson, looked across at Knaus, shook his head and said, “I didn’t even know about that goal until today. That’s a Chad goal. But it is pretty cool to do it.’’
It was Johnson’s third victory in the last four races and, combined with Mark Martin’s disheartening 17th-place finish, stretches Johnson’s points lead from 12 coming into the night to 90 heading into next week’s race at Martinsville _ another of Johnson’s favorite tracks.
In fact, it’s his best track.
Johnson has won six times on the half-mile Virginia oval, five of those victories coming in the last six races there. Since finishing 35th in his debut at Martinsville in 2002, Johnson has never finished worse than ninth.
But don’t try to convince Johnson the Chase is over, despite his obvious dominance so far.
“We’re only halfway through this thing,’’ the driver said. “Somebody at Martinsville can make a mistake and wipe you out. We all know what kind of disasters can happen at Talladega.
“We’re excited and optimistic, but we know there’s still a lot of danger out there,’’ Johnson added.
Kasey Kahne was Johnson’s main competition Saturday night before fading at the end to finish third.
“We had the best car out there quite a bit of the night, but Jimmie showed up at the end and beat us all,’’ said Kasey Kahne, who was passed byMatt Kenseth for second in the waning laps.
Kahne built a lead of more than 7 seconds over Johnson before the seventh of 10 caution flags waved on lap 291 for oil on the track. The leaders pitted and Johnson beat Kahne’s Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge off of pit road by inches.
That turned out to be the race.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon used a two-tire strategy to gain track position much of the race and passed teammate Johnson for the lead on lap 319. But it took Johnson just two laps to regain the top spot for good as Gordon faded to fourth, barely holding off rookie Joey Logano at the finish.
“We gave it a shot,’’ Gordon said. “I couldn’t believe I even got the lead. I got a great restart and was able to get by Jimmie when he got loose and we were racing really hard. I knew it was just a matter of time before my two tires gave up, and they did.’’
Gordon moved from fifth to third in the standings, but trails Johnson by 135 points. Tony Stewart, who finished a quiet 13th stayed in fourth, but slipped 155 points behind the leader.
Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, two of the 12 Chase drivers, saw their championship hopes take a bit hit Saturday night after banging together on a restart on lap 125. The collision tore up the rear end of Montoya’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dodge and put a hole in the front of Martin’s Hendrick Chevrolet.
Martin was never in contention after that and Montoya spun out, lost his repaired body work at one point and wound up 35th. The former open-wheel star slid from third in the standings to sixth, 195 points back.
“We’ve been so consistent, but it was just a bad night,’’ Montoya said, shrugging. “It’s racing and those things happen.’’
Johnson earned his sixth victory at LMS, but his first since the fall race in 2005. It is also his sixth win of the season, 46th of his career and his 19th in 55 Chase races.
Despite all the dominating numbers, though, not everybody thought Johnson’s performance was perfect.
“I think you have to lead every lap (in the race) for it to be a perfect weekend, too, so he still doesn’t have it,’’ Kenseth said, grinning.
When told Kenseth’s comment, Johnson looked over at Knaus and said, “Well, that’s going to be tough, but you never know what’s going to happen in this sport. We’ll see what happens at Martinsville.’’
– Mike Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgNo Comment