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Johnson in total control at Pocono

10 June 2013

In a week of dominating performances - Sebastian Vettel in Montreal, Helio Castroneves in Texas - Jimmie Johnson's victory at Pocono Raceway stood shoulder to shoulder with the best of them as he powered his way to his third win of 2013 and opened up a chasm in the points standings over his nearest rival Carl Edwards.

It was Edwards alongside whom Johnson took the green flag for the start of the 'Party in the Poconos 400' at the 2.5-mile tri-oval on Sunday afternoon, after qualifying on Friday had been rained out leaving the cars lined up in points order for the start of the race. Johnson didn't get the best start which allowed Edwards to jump away and lead for the first nine laps of the race, but the five-time champion was soon back in his grove and passed the #99 to take the lead for the first time on lap 10.

After that, Johnson stayed out in front save for short periods during pit stop sequences that allowed Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman to briefly head the field, but Johnson was always soon back in charge. Not even a debris caution on lap 67 broke his momentum for very long.

Seeing that the writing was on the wall, Ryan Newman realised that if anything were to be done about the #48's impending visit to victory lane then it would have to be the result of some strategic cunning, so he went off-sync with the pit stops and picked up the lead on lap 100. He maintained the top spot for the next 13 laps, the longest period all afternoon that Johnson hadn't taken point, but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver was reliant on there being a late caution or two to allow him to make the one extra pit top he still had to take, hopefully without too far back from the leaders in the process.

Newman's luck was in, and he got not one but five different cautions in the final 35 laps of the 168-lap event. The first was on lap 125 when the yellows came out for oil on the track: Newman led at the green flag, but it was Johnson who immediately seized back control.

A few minutes later, lap 133 saw Juan Pablo Montoya dive deep and hard into turn 2 in an effort to pass Matt Kenseth, but he couldn't hold the ambitious move and the two went for a synchronised spin that brought out the third yellow of the afternoon. Johnson survived another restart only to have the yellows out again on lap 138 when Dave Blaney went for a spin.

Two more restarts awaited Johnson - a caution on lap 148 for the #51 Phoenix Racing car of AJ Allmendinger lowing on the backstretch, and a final yellow on lap 154 for a second spin for Blaney - but the Hendrick Motorsport driver weathered them both imperiously without putting a foot wrong - perhaps making a point about last week, where a jump start penalty following a late caution at Dover International Raceway had cost him a likely victory.

No such chance here. Although Greg Biffle got a brilliant final restart that propelled him from fourth place past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch into second place by the flag, he was still over a second off the leader and confessed that there had never been a realistic chance of stealing the win from Johnson this weekend.

"Jimmie was in a league of his own," said Biffle. "I was going to have to get up beside him, take the air off him - something to try and gain an advantage.

"But I gave him such a good push on the restart I couldn't catch back up with him," he added. "I couldn't get him."

Behind Biffle, Johnson's Hendrick team mate Earnhardt Jr. locked up third place ahead of Tony Stewart, who just pipped his own team mate Ryan Newman whose mid-race off-sync gambit had paid off with a strong fifth place finish.

"Strategy worked out to our benefit with the yellows there at the end," said Newman after the chequered flag. "Just a good rebound day for us. That is something we definitely needed as a team."

Newman had to hold off the Busch brothers in that final green flag stint, Kyle Busch leading home his older brother Kurt in sixth and seventh positions respectively. Just behind them came Kyle's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin, who had popped up near the front after a flawless final pit stop by the team.

However, Hamlin was still troubled by the fact that the team's Toyota engines has been 'depowered' this weekend, a response by Toyota Racing Development (TRD) to a troubling number of unit blow-ups over the past year. Hamlin wasn't in favour of this and indicated he'd prefer to risk blowing up so long as he was in with a chance of winning races.

“It's a tough compromise, because in my opinion, I'm a racer. I'd rather blow up leading than run 15th all day,” Hamlin said. “That's just my mentality. We'd rather know we have a chance to win. Today, that was out of the question.”

Asked if the reduced horsepower had been a factor in why the JGR stable hadn't been able to seriously challenge Johnson all afternoon, Hamlin concurred: "Had we had all the horsepower back today, I maybe could have given them a run," he said.

"It definitely cost us spots today, but it didn't cost me a win, I don't think," he continued. "Any horsepower change is going to be a difficult thing to overcome, especially this week and next week, our two horsepower race tracks," he said, referring to next weekend's race at Michigan.

"I wouldn't be opposed to say that other guys probably stepped up coming to this race track, and we took a step back," he added. "It's kind of a double whammy, but it's something TRD's going to work through."

Hamlin's view on the issue is coloured by his urgent need to make up points in the NASCAR championship standings, after missing four full races due to a broken vertebra in his lower back suffered in a last-lap crash at Fontana just before Easter. He's still languishing in 25th place in the standings 14 races into the 26-race regular season: it's highly unlikely that he'll make it back into the top ten in the remaining dozen races before the Chase cut-off at Richmond in September. Instead he needs wins, plain and simple, to try and make it in to the championship play-offs via a most-wins wildcard.

Such concerns don't impinge on Jimmie Johnson at the moment, but he has his own reasons for hustling at this stage of the season and locking up a Chase place as soon as is humanely possible. Currently his lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is a massive 51 points - more than the maximum haul for winning a race, which is just the sort of big advantage Johnson is gunning for.

The reason? His wife Chandra is currently pregnant with the couple's second child, with the due date in early September just about the time the final pre-Chase race at Richmond is scheduled. If Johnson can pull out a big enough lead that his first seed status for the play-offs is assured, then he might consider dropping out of a race should the birth take place over the weekend.

"If Chani goes into labour early, I don't have to worry about Richmond," Johnson said on Sunday after winning Pocono. "That's what I'm working so hard for."

And as NASCAR history and five Cup titles have already ably demonstrated, the prospect of Jimmie Johnson motivated by a clear mission objective is a fearsome one indeed because the Hendrick driver is not one to be thwarted, as the way he bounced back from the still-vociferously disputed restart penalty at Dover last weekend proves.

"Jimmie is switched on right now," said Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus. "He's as good as better than I've ever seen him." Given that Knaus has been together with Johnson for the last 12 years and all his championship seasons, that's got to send alarm bells ringing throughout the NASCAR paddock among any of their rivals who have the temerity to believe that they have a chance of blocking five-time's path to a six-pack in 2013.

Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.


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