Polesitter Jimmie Johnson played his own version of 'Catch Me If You Can' on Sunday - and nobody could - in the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 and in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Though it took a green-white-chequered-flag finish to decide the race, the outcome was hardly in doubt, as Johnson dominated the race, leading 217 of 313 laps. Kurt Busch finished second, 0.295 seconds behind the two-time defending Cup champion.

With the victory, his seventh of the season, his third straight at Phoenix and the 40th of his career, Johnson widened his lead in the Chase to 141 points over fourth-place finisher Carl Edwards. If Johnson finishes 36th or better in next Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he will join a club that currently has only Cale Yarborough as a member: drivers to win three straight Cup titles.

After a lacklustre final practice session Saturday, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, traded phones calls and messages on their laptop computers, trying to improve the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

"Those guys (the crew) were working for every little thing they could find to make this car better, and they made it the dominant car," said Johnson, whose win also clinched Chevrolet's 32nd manufacturers' championship.

Of the twelve drivers who started the Chase, only Edwards has an outside chance to catch Johnson.

"I'm excited," Johnson said. "I wish we could have left here and all we have to do is start (at Homestead), but Carl put up a great fight. They've been a strong, championship-calibre team all year. But as long as something doesn't go crazy for us down in Homestead, we're going to tie Cale - and I can't wait to start celebrating."

Edwards knows his title hopes depend on major disaster for Johnson's team.

"He (Johnson) did a great job," said Edwards, who finished one position behind Roush Fenway Racing team-mate Jamie McMurray. "It's still possible, just not probable. We'll just have to go there and hope that something happens. You saw it with the 24 today." (Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon blew his engine Sunday and finished 41st.)

Denny Hamlin finished fifth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and David Ragan.

For the first 273 laps, the race looked more like a coronation than a competition. Johnson easily put distance between his #48 Chevrolet and whatever car happened to be running second. After a restart on lap 267, following a caution for debris in turn three, Johnson pulled away steadily from Kurt Busch until a massive crash in turn three stopped the action on lap 273.

The wreck left the #38 Ford of David Gilliland on top of the roof and hood of Scott Speed's #84 Toyota, and NASCAR red-flagged the race for more than 17 minutes while the safety crew winched the cars apart. Gilliland and Speed were examined in the infield care centre and released.

By then, Johnson already had locked up a five-point bonus for most laps led, as Edwards continued his slow, methodical climb from his 15th-place starting position, a run that must have seemed like a swim through molasses for the driver of the #99 Ford.

A succession of excellent pit stops, coupled with positions gained on the racetrack, left Edwards in the fourth position for a restart on lap 267, but he was unable to gain another spot. Though there were four more cautions and four more restarts in the final 40 laps, Johnson, who led the final 95 laps, finished the event without a serious challenge.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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