J.J. close to 3rd straight Cup
Posted: Monday, November 10, 2008 3:59 pm
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson proved he had a good car by winning the pole at Phoenix International Raceway. Then a poor practice session made him worry he wouldn’t be competitive during the actual race.
So he called crew chief Chad Knaus to discuss strategy. Then he called again. And again.
“I was like, ‘Dude, let me get to work,’” Knaus said. “He was stressed.”
For no reason.
Johnson moved inches closer to his record-tying third straight NASCAR title Sunday, trouncing the field at Phoenix to deliver a knockout punch to Carl Edwards’ championship hopes.
Johnson needs to finish only 36th or better next week in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to join Cale Yarborough (1976-78) as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three straight titles.
“He’s doing something pretty special,” said 2004 champion Kurt Busch, who finished second. “It’s just tough to beat.”
Johnson came into Phoenix on the ropes — reeling, almost — after a sub-par 15th-place finish last week at Texas allowed Edwards to take a sizable bite out of the points lead. When he struggled in Saturday’s final practice session, his stress-level went through the roof.
“I wasn’t that confident,” Johnson said.
Whatever changes they made worked, as Johnson led a race-high 217 of 313 laps to stretch his lead in the standings from 106 points to an almost-insurmountable 141.
“This is what I’ve worked my whole life for,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a great points lead. We’ll go down to Homestead and try to wrap this baby up.”
The win was his third straight at Phoenix, and had Edwards on the edge of conceding after his own fourth-place finish.
“If he would have some terrible luck in Homestead, we still have a chance,” Edwards said. “We did the best we could, but it’s too big of a spread right now. It’s possible. Not probable, but possible.”
Johnson has made a mockery of the Chase for the championship, reeling off 14 wins in 49 races since NASCAR adopted the format in 2004. He contended for the title in 2004 and 2005, only to come up just short both seasons.
He’s on the verge of joining Yarborough, David Pearson, Lee Petty and Darrel Waltrip as a three-time champion. Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, has four titles and Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty won a NASCAR-record seven.
Johnson has done it in dominating fashion, finishing in the top 10 in seven Chase races with his lowest finish at Texas last week.
But he still had a sizable lead over Edwards, and could have clinched Sunday. His throng of friends from his hometown of El Cajon, Calif., made the trip to Phoenix and crowded his pit box to watch him tick off the laps. When he passed Jamie McMurray on a late restart, his friends — which included professional baseball players Brian and Marcus Giles — pumped their fists in celebration.
Johnson started from the pole but gave way to McMurray on the first lap. He didn’t take the lead until Lap 81, but was never challenged from there.
McMurray briefly moved out front again after a round of late pit stops, but Johnson blew past him in Turn 2 of a restart and was hardly challenged again. Kurt Busch made a brief run at him in the closing laps, but graciously settled for second and praised Johnson for his skillful late pass.
“I was third and the way that he went high, went low, and he was in the lead before you could snap your fingers,” Busch said. “It was unbelievable to watch that type of display, and it’s something pretty special.”
McMurray was third, followed by Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and David Ragan.
With the win, cash-strapped General Motors wrapped up its 32nd NASCAR manufacturer’s championship.