Johnson finishes strong in Calif. race

The Baltimore Sun

FONTANA, Calif. -- Nextel Cup teams beware. Apparently, Jimmie Johnson and his race team have received their wake-up call

Johnson, who won four of the season's first 10 races but at one point in midseason managed only two top-10 finishes in an eight-race stretch, roared to a victory in last night's Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway. That puts Johnson in position to go into the Chase for the Nextel Cup at the head of the championship pack, and repeats a pattern that has been familiar for the defending champions in NASCAR's top series.

It has been typical for Johnson to start fast, persevere through a summer swoon and kick things back into gear as it comes time for the Chase. Last year, he finished second four times and won once in a five-race stretch late in the title drive that carried him to his first championship.

"It has been a few months since we won," said Johnson, who'd last won on May 6 at Richmond. "It's good to be back."

With his fifth win, Johnson picked up 10 more bonus points that would allow him to start this year's Chase with 5,050 points. Unless teammate Jeff Gordon, who's won four races, gets a victory at Richmond next week, Johnson will be the points leader when the Chase begins at New Hampshire.

"The season is all about a championship," Johnson said. "It's time for the pressure to pick up and the hard work to start. My guys are ready for it. ... We're hitting our stride when we need to."

Carl Edwards, who'd already clinched a Chase spot, and Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton, who clinched with their finishes last night, chased Johnson over the final laps. Edwards and Busch, at least, were closing in the final laps but the lead Johnson built after his final green-flag pit stop was too much. "Running second is terrible," Edwards said. "I just hope we run this well in the Chase."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth, doing as much as he could to sustain his flagging hopes to make the Chase. He did gain some ground, as Kurt Busch finished ninth, Kevin Harvick 14th and Clint Bowyer 20th. But Earnhardt Jr. is still 128 points behind 12th-place Harvick with only next week's race left to make that up.

"It doesn't look like we're going to make it, but we're not going to quit trying to," Earnhardt said. Kurt Busch started first and went to the point, but his younger brother, Kyle, was the early mover.

There were three early yellow flags, and on the third several cars stayed out on the track with Kyle Busch taking over the lead. Michael Waltrip's No. 55 Toyota blew a left-front tire on Lap 40, and that knocked something off the car that started a fire underneath it. Waltrip drove into the grass and finally was helped out as emergency crews worked on getting the fire out.

John Andretti blew a right-front tire to cause a caution on Lap 72. Martin Truex Jr. and Earnhardt beat Kyle Busch off pit road. Busch and Earnhardt then swapped the lead several times before, on Lap 86, Robby Gordon blew a tire. Bowyer narrowly avoided what could have been a blow to his Chase for the Nextel Cup hopes by just dodging Gordon's spinning car.

Earnhardt, Ryan Newman and Kenseth stayed on the track, with everybody else coming in for pit stops. Newman nosed ahead of Earnhardt on the restart on Lap 91, but Earnhardt battled back and Kyle Busch, who stopped for tires, climbed to second came up to regain the lead just before Newman spun after contact from Jeff Burton.

With the sun going down, Johnson moved to the front on Lap 113 and led by nearly three seconds at one point. But by Lap 137 Busch had moved back to the top.

The race remained green through a cycle of pit stops, and when everyone had been in and out Kyle Busch was up by more than 3 seconds with Earnhardt Jr. second and Johnson third. That went away when a caution came out for debris on Lap 164, and Brian Vickers took only two tires and came back on track ahead of Kyle Busch, Johnson and Edwards, who'd fought back from the early contact with Montoya on pit road.

Johnson got the lead again on Lap 171 after a three-way battle with Vickers and Kyle Busch, but Reed Sorenson lost a tire on Lap 174 and then Jeff Gordon got loose on Lap 180 and hit Jeremy Mayfield, who then turned David Reuitmann to set of a crash that involved six cars and left Ricky Rudd favoring his left arm or wrist after hitting the wall. Rudd was taken to a local hospital for further evaluation.

Somewhere in the middle of that mess Kevin Harvick managed to find a clear path through. Had he wrecked and been knocked out, that could have been a critical blow to Harvick's Chase hopes.

Johnson, meanwhile, was fully in command. He was more than 3 seconds ahead of Busch and Edwards when the lead cycled back to him on Lap 229, and that was more than enough.

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