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THE PEPSI 500 AT AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY

Johnson powers way to dominant victory

He cruises to a third career win at the two-mile oval and clinches a spot in the Chase for the Cup.

September 01, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

No NASCAR driver is more self-confident than Kyle Busch, an eight-time Sprint Cup Series winner this year. But before Sunday's race, Busch said "I've always worried about Jimmie Johnson. You never know what he can come up with during a race."

And what Johnson came up with at the Pepsi 500 was a rocket. The reigning Cup champion dominated Busch and the other 41 drivers to win decisively at Auto Club Speedway, his third career victory at the two-mile oval in Fontana.

Greg Biffle, who tried to catch Johnson in the last 30 laps but couldn't close the gap, finished second, two seconds behind Johnson. Denny Hamlin was third and Kevin Harvick fourth.

It was Johnson's 36th victory and he became the first driver to win a Cup race from the pole position in Fontana since the speedway opened in 1997.

His win also sent everyone a reminder that, even though Busch and Carl Edwards have won 14 of the first 25 races this season and are 1-2 in the point standings, Johnson is very much a threat to win his third consecutive title.

"Just an awesome race car all night long," said Johnson, 32. "More than anything I'm happy to close the deal. It's very, very rare to have a car that dominant."

With only one race remaining before NASCAR's Chase for the Cup late-season playoff, Johnson, who has three wins this season and is third in the points, also clinched a berth in the 10-race Chase.

So did Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, and Jeff Burton of Richard Childress Racing. Busch and Carl Edwards also are locked into the 12-driver Chase.

"I'm glad we made the Chase this year," said Earnhardt, who did not reach the playoff last year when he was with his family's team. "A lot of people would have expected us to make it, but we didn't know when the season started."

The other seven spots in the Chase will be decided next weekend at the final race of the regular season in Richmond, Va.

The drivers seventh through 12th after the Fontana race are Biffle, Harvick, former champions Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon, Hamlin and Clint Bowyer.

"We didn't lock ourselves in but we definitely put ourselves in a lot better spot," Hamlin said. "We're still not comfortable. Anything can happen at Richmond."

But Biffle will clinch his spot merely by starting the race at the 0.75-mile Richmond International Raceway. "We're so glad to be in the Chase," he said. "We missed it in '06 and '07 and to come back and get in in '08, we're pretty excited."

Busch, meanwhile, had an unusually quiet race after the cocky Las Vegas native was loudly booed, as usual, by the crowd during the drivers' introductions.

He started in 11th place, spent most of the race outside the top 10 and never challenged for the lead. Busch finished seventh in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, one spot behind Edwards.

So there was no second act in the rivalry that erupted between Busch and Edwards a week earlier in Bristol, Tenn., when the drivers banged their cars into each other and then drew a six-race probation from NASCAR.

Johnson, an El Cajon native who previously won in Fontana a year ago and in 2002, was in control from the race's late-afternoon green flag until its finish under the lights.

He led 227 of the 250 laps and his No. 48 Chevy seemed as if it was riding on rails. But his team was confident even before the race. It was the same car that he used to win the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis in July.

The traction of the Fontana speedway typically changes as it cools with nightfall, forcing drivers and crews to constantly adjust the cars to keep them competitive.

Yet "we really didn't touch much all night long," Johnson said. "I think the track came to us."

Johnson's mastery of the race was evident after he pitted during a caution period in Lap 182. After leaving the pits behind Biffle, Edwards and David Reutimann, it took Johnson only four laps to pass all of them and regain the lead.

Biffle tried to run Johnson down in the closing stages but couldn't reach Johnson's rear bumper.

"It's frustrating," said Biffle, driver of the No. 16 Ford. "The 48 was phenomenal. I drove as hard as I've driven in a long time and I was just on the edge.

"I just thought maybe if I got close enough maybe I could make him start thinking about what's behind him."

It never happened, and Johnson appears to be peaking at just the right time -- on the eve of the Chase -- after months of hearing about how Busch and Edwards were NASCAR's top drivers this season.

"We have been doing the right things and those guys have been getting the credit they deserve," Johnson said. "They only way we can be a part of that is go out and do that, and we did tonight."

As Johnson's team owner Rick Hendrick put it, "I hope we can take this momentum into the Chase."

Bowyer retained the 12th and final spot in the Chase with only the Richmond race remaining after finishing 10th, while his closest competitor in the points, David Ragan, finished 13th to stay 13th in the standings.

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