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Johnson wins again, widens Chase lead

18 October 2009

Saturday night's NASCAR Banking 500 was appropriately named. After winning the race as his two closest pursuers fell by the wayside, Jimmie Johnson can all but take his fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title to the bank.

Johnson, who started from the pole and led all three practice sessions for the fifth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, pulled away during a 17-lap run to the finish and beat runner-up Matt Kenseth to the finish line by 2.303 seconds.

In winning his sixth race of the year and the 46th of his career — tying Buck Baker for 13th on the all-time list — Johnson extended his series lead to 90 points over second-place Mark Martin, who finished 17th. Kasey Kahne ran third, and Jeff Gordon came home fourth to climb to third in the standings, 135 points behind Johnson.

With the victory, Johnson completed a weekend sweep, having won the pole and having led all three practice sessions for the race. Johnson is the first driver to win the fall race at Charlotte from the pole since Harry Gant accomplished the feat in 1982.

Despite his 90-point advantage, Johnson wasn't ready to claim a record fourth straight title.

“We're only halfway through this thing,” he said. “So much can happen. Somebody at Martinsville (next week) can lose their brakes and clean you out. With the double-file restarts, there's going to be a lot of bumping and banging. Somebody can get into you and knock a valve stem out or cut a tyre.

“It's a nice points lead; there's no need for anybody to get too excited yet. We've got good tracks ahead for us, so from a team standpoint, we're excited and optimistic. But at the same time, there's a lot of danger out there, and we've just got to be smart.

“If we don't have a problem, I feel we have a very good chance to win this championship — racing for it.”

Rookie Joey Logano edged Clint Bowyer for fifth, and Casey Mears, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch completed the top ten.

A restart on lap 125 did significant damage to the cars of Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, as well as to their Chase aspirations. The field slowed as Gordon brought the cars to the green flag, and when Montoya checked up behind Bowyer, Martin hit the #42 Chevrolet hard enough to knock the rear quarter panel askew.

The impact also damaged the nose of Martin's #5 Chevy, but Montoya was the bigger loser in the exchange. Fighting the handling of his damaged car, he spun off turn four on lap 164, hit a commitment cone at the entrance to pit road and lost two laps in the process. Montoya finished 35th and fell from third to sixth in the standings, 195 points behind Johnson.

Martin's handling suffered, too, and on lap 289, Kahne put the #5 a lap down. But Martin got back on the lead lap with a free pass after David Gilliland's contact with the turn two wall brought out the eighth caution of the race on lap 300.

Kenseth, who posted his best finish since winning the first two races of the year, was pleased with his performance but reserved most of his admiration for the dominant combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

“Those guys are awesome,” Kenseth said. “Since those two got together, they've been, in my opinion, the group to beat every single year. Whenever it counts and it's crunch time, they do this. They've done this every year for the last four years, so it shouldn't really be a surprise to anybody.”

Johnson became the first driver to win three of the first five races in a Chase. He has won 17 of the 55 Chase races.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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