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Johnson Closes In on Title

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 1 2009
Jamie McMurray celebrates after winning a wild one at Talladega on Sunday. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jamie McMurray celebrates after winning a wild one at Talladega on Sunday. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Talladega, Ala. – Drivers hoping to put a dent in Jimmie Johnson’s championship hopes on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway wound up self-destructing during the final laps of the AMP Energy 500.

While NASCAR’s most dominant driver nursed his No. 48 Chevrolet to a sixth-place finish, his chief competition wound up crashing and running out fuel during the final laps to all but mathematically assure that Johnson will capture his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.

Despite riding in the back of the field much of the day, Johnson claimed his effort felt similar to a champagne bath in victory lane.

He also praised crew chief Chad Knaus’ decision to take a splash of fuel prior the race’s final restart.

“Yeah, I do feel better than a race win with today’s finish,” said Johnson, who was running 25th following the red flag prior to the green-white-checkered finish. “From where we were during the red flag and where we finished, I‘m still in shock.

“I can’t believe that it worked out. I can’t believe that many guys ran out of fuel and put themselves in that position. We almost stayed out. It’s such a relief to finish and then make up points.”

Mark Martin appeared to be in position to shave about 40 points off of Johnson’s lead as the field roared out of Turn 4 with the white flag insight.

Instead, the 50-year-old driver lost ground in the title race when he was collected in a 13-car pileup and his No. 5 Chevrolet wound up on its roof just past the entrance of pit road.

“I feel bad that the guys crashed coming to the finish and got wrecked cars,” said Johnson, who padded his to 184 points over second-place Martin with three races remaining. “I was really concerned for Mark because, when I looked into the mirror, I saw the 5 roof number tumbling and flipping and then it hit the outside fence.

“I hate to see things take place that way.

“Making up points on them? That’s what we’re here to do. I wish it had been under fuel circumstances (on teammates Martin and Jeff Gordon), not under a crash for sure. But we’ll take it.”

The media attempted to coronate him as the sport’s first four-time champion late Sunday. But Johnson would have none of that talk.

“I’m not going to let up and lose focus in the job I need to do until it’s mathematically locked up,” Johnson said. “I can lose 165 points next week if I miss a shift and blow the engine at the start of the Texas race and Mark has a perfect day.

“With all of that in mind, yes, I am feeling much better about things. I was so concerned about this race. I thought I was going to lose points with about three or four to go.

“To turn around and leave with points over the guys, I didn’t expect it. Very, very, very good situation we’re in. But I can’t stop doing what I do, how the team does their thing, how we prepare.

“Racing doesn’t have any feelings. Racing will reach up and bite you at any point. Anything can happen.”

– Jeff Hood can be reached at jhood@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 1 2009
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