THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Desert domination puts Johnson on cusp of history

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press / November 16, 2009

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AVONDALE, Ariz. - Jimmie Johnson rebounded from a rare bad race with a dominating victory at Phoenix International Raceway yesterday that pushed him to the edge of a NASCAR record fourth consecutive championship.

Johnson led 238 laps to win for the fourth time in the last five races at Phoenix. It was his seventh victory of the season, and fourth since the start of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

More important, it stretched his lead to 108 points over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin heading into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson needs only to finish 25th or better Sunday to grab a spot in NASCAR’s record books.

Although his Hendrick team initially celebrated as if the title had been locked up, the No. 48 crew quickly settled down in Victory Lane.

“I can’t put my guard down,’’ Johnson said, “anything and everything can go wrong.’’

It did a week ago in Texas, where Johnson was caught in a wreck three laps into the race and had to sit inside his crippled car as his crew did a total rebuild of the Chevrolet. He limped to a 38th-place finish that cost him 111 points in the standings.

It still left him with a 73-point lead over Martin going into Phoenix, but Johnson refused to play safe and coast to the points title. He raced hard, intent on bouncing back with a dominating showing in the desert.

“We could have easily been beat down, and certainly there were some dark moments over the past week thinking about the points lost,’’ Johnson said. “We didn’t, though. But we saw in Texas that anything can happen, so we don’t need to get too excited about this.’’

Martin finished fourth, respectable but not the showing he needed to move closer to the championship that has eluded him his entire NASCAR career. The sentimental favorite this year will likely finish second in the standings for a fifth time.

“We gave it everything we had,’’ Martin said.

He’s the only driver still in mathematical contention to catch Johnson. Fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon will be eliminated as soon as Johnson starts Sunday’s race, and Johnson’s win at Phoenix knocked everyone else out of contention.

Martin, however, is refusing to concede to Johnson and said he won’t let up next week in Homestead as he tries to at least stave off Gordon for second in the final standings. But should Johnson coast to the win, Martin will be fine.

“We’ve still got to go to Homestead and run like this again, because we still have heat behind us, Jeff Gordon, especially,’’ Martin said. “I definitely have been beat by the best - Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt. It wouldn’t embarrass me if it was Jimmie Johnson as well.’’

Jeff Burton finished second and was followed by Denny Hamlin, Martin, and pole-sitter Martin Truex. Kurt Busch, winner last week, finished sixth, with Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Gordon, and David Reutimann rounding out the top 10.