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MOTOR RACING : News flash: Cup is in Johnson's grasp : Making good on his 'lightning strike' vow, he wins in Phoenix to all but clinch a fourth straight NASCAR title.

November 16, 2009|Jim Peltz

AVONDALE, ARIZ. — Turns out Jimmie Johnson was right about the lightning.

After suffering an unexpected crash a week earlier that slowed his bid for yet another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, Johnson said, "I don't think lightning can strike two weeks in a row."

And it didn't. Johnson won the next-to-last race of the season Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, just as he did in 2007 and 2008, to all but clinch the Cup title ahead of the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida next Sunday.

His performance this year is even more impressive because it would be Johnson's fourth consecutive championship -- an unprecedented achievement in NASCAR's 61-year history.

"That was exactly what we needed," a jubilant Johnson, 34, radioed to crew chief Chad Knaus after taking the checkered flag.

Johnson won in dominant fashion, leading 238 of the race's 312 laps, and the victory gave him a sizable 108-point lead over Mark Martin in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff and a 169-point lead over third-place Jeff Gordon. All three drive for the same team, Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson can win the championship with a finish of 25th or better in Florida, regardless of how the others finish.

"We just can't coast," Johnson said. "We can't chill out. We have to stay focused and keep our heads down."

His victory in the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 gave Johnson a series-high seven wins this season, and the El Cajon, Calif., native now has a record four wins at Phoenix International.

"We knew we had to come out today and run well" because Martin and Gordon also are former winners in Phoenix, Johnson said. "It wasn't easy. There was a lot of pressure on us to do this. I'm very, very proud of how we delivered."

Jeff Burton finished second, Denny Hamlin was third and Martin fourth. Gordon finished ninth.

"We gave it everything we had today," said Martin, 50, who appears poised to be the bridesmaid in the title chase for the fifth time in his career. "I'm really proud of what we've done this season. That's really all I've got to say about it."

Burton, whose Richard Childress Racing team has struggled badly this year, earned his best finish of the season. "I'm excited about running second," Burton said. "We're building on something."

Johnson's march toward another title was disrupted a week ago when his No. 48 Chevrolet crashed early in the race at Texas.

The setback enabled Martin to slash Johnson's lead to 73 points from 184 heading into Phoenix, and raised the prospect that Johnson's bid to make history could be upset if he suffered additional problems in the desert.

But Johnson started third before an estimated 90,000 on a warm, clear day at the one-mile Phoenix International oval and he stayed out of trouble all day.

That included being in the lead when a multi-car crash occurred behind him on Lap 171 that collected Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, among others.

Earnhardt appeared to trigger the accident by losing control on the narrow front straightaway, and Stewart and the other drivers stacked up behind him.

"I hated it for everyone who got caught up in that," Earnhardt said. "I was trying to spin the car down the track . . . and I couldn't get out of everybody's way."

But beyond avoiding accidents, what separated Johnson from the other leaders Sunday was his ability to accelerate out of the corners, Hamlin said.

Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that when he was close to Johnson he tried to mimic the arc Johnson followed to maneuver through each turn.

But "my car would just not respond," Hamlin said. "He can just accelerate off the corners better."

Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick, said he disagreed with those who have suggested that Johnson's remarkable streak of the last few years has hurt NASCAR by making the Cup series less dramatic.

"I don't think that's hurt NASCAR at all," Hendrick said, noting that Gordon, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty had similar dominating years. "That's his job, to come out here and do the best he can."

Which was good enough Sunday. Johnson's team "did what they needed to do, which is no surprise," Gordon said. "We've seen them do it many times. That's why they are three-time champions, soon to be four."

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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