Johnson places second, tightens grip on Chase

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Associated Press

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- The Nextel Cup title is Jimmie Johnson's to lose.

For anyone else, it would be a perfect position. But Johnson has been here before.

Johnson lost two of these titles before, and nothing is guaranteed -- even after his second-place finish Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway gave him a firm hold atop the Chase for the championship leaderboard.

He needs to only finish 12th or better next week in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the championship.

"I seriously don't have any clue what to expect," Johnson said. "I don't have any strategy other than go down and finish ahead of (the other Chase drivers). It's just that simple. That's all we've done so far, through these last few months, and we're just going to go down there and do the same thing we've been doing."

What Johnson has done is put together a nearly flawless five-race stretch to rescue his season. After leading the points for all but four of the first 26 weeks of the regular season, he saw his title hopes crippled in Round 1 of the Chase when he crashed and finished 39th.

That dropped him to ninth in the standings, and few believed Johnson could mount yet another one of his amazing comebacks. He did it the past two seasons, when he dominated the regular season only to fall apart at the start of the Chase and have to frantically work his way back into contention.

Doing it a third time just seemed a little too much to ask.

So he didn't try to. Johnson instead decided to attack the remaining Chase races one at a time and let the points fall where they may. In doing so, he's racked up five-straight finishes of second or better to move back into the points lead and put a healthy margin on the competition.

He leads Matt Kenseth by 63 points and only four other drivers are mathematically eligible to even catch him.

"I never felt like we were out of it, but I knew we needed some bad luck," said Johnson, who was 165 points out of the lead after the third Chase race. "I never conceded, but I also said to myself 'Let's just go all-out.' "

That's what he did Sunday, when he briefly flirted with racing Kevin Harvick for the win before smartly settling for second.

He raced Harvick just hard enough over a final three-lap sprint to the finish to maintain his track position and not jeopardize the big picture.

"In order to get the win, I was really going to have to force the issue," Johnson said. "I had a good run on Kevin ... a little bit of position inside of him, but he was shutting the door and I knew that I needed to be smart from that point on."

Harvick, who won for the fifth time this year and swept the season at Phoenix, led 252 of the 312 laps and was out front for a series of late restarts. A short stoppage allowed both drivers to map out their final strategy, which called for Johnson to make a brief run at Harvick over the closing laps.

But Harvick twice held off the charge, and Johnson fell in line behind him as they crossed the finish line.

"Jimmie got a good run on me," Harvick said. "But I wasn't going to lose this race."

Harvick, whose alternator was on the fritz over the final stretch, worried he wouldn't have enough juice to make it to the end. But he got a good jump on the final restart, then steadily watched his rearview mirror as Johnson came hard at him.

Harvick blocked the challenge, briefly opened up a gap, then withstood a second a run by Johnson. From there, he knew Johnson couldn't risk doing anything that would jeopardize the big picture.

"I knew he was going to push me, but he wasn't going to take any unnecessary chances," Harvick said. "He was going to try to make us make a mistake."

The win moved Harvick into a tie for third in the standings, but 90 points back -- and headed to Homestead knowing the title is Johnson's to lose.

"We wish we were closer than that but we did everything we could do today," he said. "That's all we can do and however it falls, it falls. It's been a great year for us."

Denny Hamlin finished third, Jeff Gordon was fourth and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five as it was a decent day for nine of the Chase for the championship drivers -- all but Kyle Busch finished inside the top 13.

Still, five of them were mathematically eliminated from title contention and the scoreboard now shows that only Kenseth, Hamlin, Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have a chance to catch Johnson.

"I'm not too optimistic about it," said Kenseth, who finished 13th. "Obviously anything can happen, we're still within striking distance if they have a mechanical problem or some type of problem like that.

"But certainly we'd be fooling ourselves if we think we'd beat them on performance."

But even before he gets down to Miami to race after the biggest prize of his career, Johnson must first make it through what promises to be a stress-filled week, one that Harvick doesn't envy at all.

"It's a lot of pressure, there's a lot on the line," Harvick said. "It seems like everything you've done all year comes down to one race. It will probably be a long week, he probably won't sleep much. He should avoid the Internet, avoid the newspaper, avoid the radio and all interviews."

But Johnson had other ideas.

"I'll go to the golf course tomorrow and have some fun and relax, and stay busy Tuesday and Wednesday and just try to let the week hurry by," he said.

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