Johnson extends Nextel Cup lead

Auto racing

November 13, 2006|By Jim Peltz | Jim Peltz,LOS ANGELES TIMES

AVONDALE, Ariz. --Jimmie Johnson widened his lead in the Chase for the Nextel Cup by hugging the bumper of Kevin Harvick, who again dominated in the desert yesterday to win the series' next-to-last race.

Harvick captured the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, with Johnson's Chevrolet a close second. That gave Johnson a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth as NASCAR's top series heads to its finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

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

Johnson will clinch the championship if he finishes 12th or better at Homestead, NASCAR officials said.

"It was certainly a great run," Johnson said. Asked how he plans to drive the final race, Johnson said, "I don't have any strategy other than to go down and finish ahead" of the other nine Chase contenders.

It was Harvick's fifth win of the year, and it lifted him to a third-place tie in the Chase with rookie Denny Hamlin, 90 points behind Johnson. Hamlin finished third in yesterday's race.

Most of the 10 Chase contenders finished well but failed to gain ground because of Johnson's strong run.

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. But Earnhardt dropped from third to fifth in the points, 115 behind Johnson, after finishing ninth yesterday in a Chevrolet. Kenseth again had a poor-handling Ford and the Roush Racing driver finished 13th.

"The 48 [Johnson] didn't make any mistakes," said Hamlin, who drives a Chevy for Joe Gibbs Racing. "They're championship material right now."

Kenseth said he can win the title "only if [Johnson] blows up" next week. "We're running so bad right now that I don't feel like we can beat anybody."

Harvick, who also won the spring race here for Richard Childress Racing, said Johnson is the favorite to wrap up the title.

"There's a lot of pressure, there's a lot on the line" for Johnson, said Harvick, a Bakersfield, Calif., native with a long history of racing at Phoenix International. "Everything you've done all year comes down to one race. It will probably be a long week for him."

Johnson, a fellow Californian from El Cajon, came to Phoenix leading Kenseth by only 17 points, then qualified a poor 29th. Before the race, Johnson said his early strategy would be to "find a safe spot on the track, log miles and stay out of harm's way."

Instead, he powered through the field within the first 50 laps of the 312-lap race.

"Once we fired the engines, that fear went away and we had a blast," he said. "I tried to stay smart and move to the front."

Johnson even tried to pass Harvick's Chevrolet on the final two laps but thought better of it to protect his points lead.

"At the end I was really pushing for a win," Johnson said. "I just knew in order to get the win I was really going to have to force the issue ... I just knew that I needed to be smart from that point on."

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.

The first half of the race was accident-free on a picture-perfect day with temperatures in the 80s, but the second half was marred by several wrecks. However, none involved the Chase contenders. Other Chase drivers in the top 10 were Jeff Gordon (fourth), Mark Martin (sixth), Kasey Kahne (seventh) and Jeff Burton (10th).

Jim Peltz writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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