Johnson on track to extend Sprint Cup streak

By Will Graves
Associated Press / October 12, 2009

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FONTANA, Calif. - Jimmie Johnson is back in control of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.

The three-time defending Sprint Cup champion easily pulled away from Jeff Gordon following a restart with three laps left to win the Pepsi 500 yesterday at Auto Club Speedway for his fifth victory of the year and 45th overall.

The win was Johnson’s fourth at the 2-mile oval and sent a message to the rest of the contenders he has no plans of giving up his spot atop the series easily.

Johnson delivered another signature performance at a track he has turned into his own personal playground through the years.

He won so effortlessly all Gordon could do afterward was shrug his shoulders.

“What else can you say? They’re the best out there,’’ Gordon said. “They’ve won the last three championships. They’re going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don’t see how they lose it.’’

Johnson, who led 126 laps, dominated the second half of the race but had to sweat out a series of double-file restarts following a number of late-race collisions, including an eight-car pileup that forced a 22-minute red flag with six laps remaining.

Waiting out the delay, Johnson worried he didn’t have enough car to hold off Gordon. He shouldn’t have. His No. 48 Chevrolet roared away from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and he quickly put the rest of the field in his rearview mirror to propel him into the points lead for the first time all season.

“That’s it, that’s what we want,’’ Johnson said. “We’ve just got to keep chipping away.’’

Juan Pablo Montoya was third, his fourth straight top-five finish. All that consistency, however, hasn’t helped Montoya make up any ground on Johnson.

Mark Martin, who started the day with an 18-point lead over Johnson, was fourth and now trails Johnson by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte, N.C. Tony Stewart rallied from an early pit-road speeding penalty to finish fifth.

While Johnson surged, several Chase contenders stumbled.

Denny Hamlin was leading with 60 laps to go when he collided with Montoya on a restart. Hamlin spun into a barrier at the end of pit road and quickly drove his No. 11 Toyota back to the garage. He attempted to get back on the track after missing 25 laps but was black-flagged for not reaching minimum speed.

Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle didn’t fare much better. The two got together with about 15 laps to go when Kurt Busch got loose, sending Biffle into Kahne. The two slid across the infield grass. Biffle ended up 20th while Kahne slid to 34th.