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Johnson rules Fontana to grab Chase lead

12 October 2009

For months, three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson has been saying the addition of Auto Club Speedway to the Chase for the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup was a gift to his No. 48 team.

In Sunday's Pepsi 500, he proved it – and grabbed the points lead from Mark Martin in the process. Johnson's win also left runner-up Jeff Gordon conceding that his Hendrick Motorsports team-mate is in a class by himself.

After the sun came out on lap 66 of 250, Johnson was unbeatable, and not even a succession of late re-starts could derail his effort. In a three-lap sprint to the finish that followed a massive wreck in Turn 1 on lap 245, Johnson pulled away from Gordon to win by 1.603 seconds. Ex-F1 star Juan-Pablo Montoya ran third, followed by Martin and Tony Stewart, who overcame a pit-road speeding penalty that cost him a lap.

Though he's now the all-time leader with four Cup wins at Fontana, Johnson said the race was anything but a 'gimme' – and the California native acknowledged that the appearance of the sun turned the track conditions in his favour.

“I try not to the have the mindset that we come back to a track that we've had success at and we're expected to run well,” he stressed. “You have to go out every week, and it's the same thing for this championship. Just because we've done well in the last three years doesn't mean that we're a shoo-in for the fourth. I've just got to stay focused on my job, go out and earn it each lap and see where things fall into place. We needed to run well to get points because, obviously, the 5 (Martin) and the 42 (Montoya) ran well.

“We did work on the car some, but I think it came to us. I think [the sun] made the track slick, and the lines I was running and the balance we had with the car really helped us. It really came in our direction.”

Johnson won off a re-start with three laps left, after the multi-car incident in Turn 1 – which took out all four Richard Petty Motorsports entries – forced NASCAR to red-flag the race for a track clean-up. The final three-lap segment followed a re-start just four laps earlier, after Kurt Busch bounced off the Turn 4 wall and collected fellow Chase drivers Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle on lap 239. Johnson was confident he had the strongest car, if he could just stay ahead on the re-starts.

“It's such a long straightaway, and the draft is so important that the guy who is on the second row really controls who's in the lead going into Turn 1,” the 34-year-old opined. “You almost have to get a bad re-start to allow the guy behind you to hit your bumper and push you along. I was doing it wrong, and finally on that last re-start I got it right. We had such a good car that, if somebody did pass me, I could get back by them in a couple of laps.”

Gordon couldn't agree more about the quality of Johnson's car.

“They're in another category,” the four-time Sprint Cup king reflected. “We've got to find out what we're missing. The only thing I felt bad about was that we finished second, and we're in a second-class category. We're good, but we're not good enough. We're doing everything we can to be good enough, but it's just not there. We've got to search and find something. We've got to be better than that.”

With his fifth win of the season, the 45th of his career and the third straight in the fall race at Fontana, Johnson moved twelve points ahead of Martin in the standings. Montoya is third, 58 points back, and Stewart stands fourth, 84 behind Johnson. Gordon improved two positions to fifth, 105 points out.

Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin was a major casualty. First out of the pits under caution following a pit-stop on lap 186, Hamlin led the field to a re-start on lap 190, but before he reached the first corner, his No. 11 Toyota sat wrecked at the end of pit-road. Hamlin had chosen to re-start from the outside lane – the leader's prerogative – but he turned too quickly to the inside and spun across the nose of the Chevy of Montoya, who had gotten a push down the front stretch from Johnson.

The nose of Hamlin's car slammed into the end of the wall separating pit-road from the infield grass. After extensive repairs in the garage, Hamlin returned to the track for a few laps, but his 37th-place finish dropped him to ninth in the Cup standings, 219 points behind Johnson. The 28-year-old was crestfallen as his team repaired his car.

“I thought I was clear and misjudged it,” he rued. “I've got to apologise to the team. They deserve better than that. They got me out front. It was a bad mistake.”

Feeling worse than he had all weekend, Kyle Busch exited his No. 18 Toyota during the first caution period, as he had done in Saturday's Nationwide Series outing. Sixty laps into the race, the Nevada-born ace turned the car over to David Gilliland, who had started the event in his No. 71 Chevrolet before parking it after 13 laps.

“I'm going to go lay down for a little bit and see if I can get some fluids or something in me at the infield care centre,” revealed Busch, who was suffering from the flu, bronchitis and a sinus infection. “I'm sorry I had to get out. I'm not feeling well. I was coughing real bad out there.”

Gilliland went on to finish 24th, a lap down.


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