NASCAR: Johnson pulls away in Pepsi 500
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) ó Jimmie Johnson is back in control of NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship.
The three-time defending Sprint Cup champion easily pulled away from Jeff Gordon following a restart with three laps left to win the Pepsi 500 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway for his fifth victory of the year and 45th overall.
The win was Johnson’s fourth at the 2-mile oval and sent a message to the rest of the contenders he has no plans of giving up his spot atop the series easily.
“What else can you say? They’re the best out there,” Gordon said. “They’ve won the last three championships. They’re going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don’t see how they lose it.”
Johnson, who led 126 laps, dominated the second half of the race but had to sweat out a series of double-file restarts following a number of late-race collisions, including an eight-car pileup that forced a 22-minute red flag with six laps remaining.
Waiting out the delay, Johnson worried he didn’t have enough car to hold off Gordon. He shouldn’t have. His No. 48 Chevrolet roared away from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate on the restart as he quickly put the rest of the field in his rearview mirror to vault him into the points lead for the first time all season.
“That’s it, that’s what we want,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to keep chipping away.”
Juan Pablo Montoya was third, his fourth straight top-five finish. Mark Martin, who started the day with an 18-point lead over Johnson, was fourth and now trails Johnson by 12 points heading into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte.
Tony Stewart rallied from an early pit-road speeding penalty to finish fifth.
Gordon briefly slipped by Johnson in the later stages but held out no real hope of catching him.
“He’s unbelievable out there,” Gordon said. “From where I was at, he ran away with it today.”
Johnson wasn’t ready to proclaim the Chase over with six weeks left.
“We got maximum points today … but I don’t want to think about it,” he said.
While Johnson surged, several Chase contenders stumbled.
Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers all saw their Chase hopes likely evaporate for good.
Hamlin was leading with 60 laps to go when he collided with Montoya.