Johnson wins at Pocono again
The drivers are now focused on the Nextel Cup series points chase.
By DAVID POOLE
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
LONG POND, Pa. -- In any other season in the so-called "modern era" of NASCAR's premiere series, Jimmie Johnson's dominating victory in Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 might have meant the race for the championship was effectively over.
Johnson completed a sweep of the season's two races at Pocono Raceway by leading 124 of 200 laps and, basically, blowing everybody's doors off in his No. 48 Chevrolet.
Combined with another early exit for Dale Earnhardt Jr., still nursing burns suffered in a sports-car race crash two weeks ago, and a wreck on Sunday for Tony Stewart, only Jeff Gordon is within shouting distance Johnson in the standings.
Johnson's fourth win of the season left him with a 232-point edge on Gordon, and his 13th top-five finish in the past 17 races re-established the 28-year-old Californian and his team as the top dogs in Nextel Cup racing this year.
But this is not any other season.
This year the standings will reset after the 26th race and Johnson's lead, no matter how big it might be after a race at Richmond on Sept. 11, will be just five points over his closest rival the following week as the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup begins.
Kevin Harvick, who finished 32nd Sunday after engine problems in his Chevrolet, dropped to 10th in the standings and is now 620 points back.
But whoever's in that 10th spot after 26 races will be only 45 back with 10 races to go, no matter how much farther Johnson pulls.
"At the beginning of the year we knew what the points would be like," Johnson said. "I voiced my opinion then, and I've voiced it many times since. But it doesn't change the rules we're racing under."
It also doesn't change the fact that Johnson led 250 of the 400 laps run at Pocono this season. If Sunday's race had been 7,000 miles, it still would be difficult to imagine any other car than the No. 48 Chevrolet winning.
Mark Martin came closest, finishing second for the sixth time in his career at Pocono, a 2.5-mile track where he's had 18 top-five finishes but still has never won.
Martin led 11 laps, moving to the top spot when Gordon started to go to pit road under yellow and then reconsidered at the last second on Lap 128. The abortive move cost Gordon two spots on the track under yellow, a misstep that might have been much more worthy of talking about afterward had it not been so clear that Johnson's car would eventually render it moot.
"I was pretty sure the 48 was going to be up there pretty soon," Martin said. "I didn't even run as hard as I could because I knew he was going to get there and, at the same time, we needed to save fuel. I could have led several more laps had I tried to stretch it out while he was back in traffic, but all that would have done is burn gas and it would have just delayed the inevitable."
So Martin settled into second and spent the rest of the day fending off rookie Kasey Kahne, who battled back after having his Dodge damaged when Tony Stewart wrecked while he, Kahne and Kurt Busch were battling three-wide just past the halfway point. Kahne's car was damaged but not enough to prevent him from getting third. Greg Biffle was fourth, and Gordon came home fifth.
While Kahne skirted disaster in the incident with Stewart and Busch, several others escaped far less successfully in a race that saw 17 of the 43 starters not running at the finish.
The attrition was such that Ryan Newman, who lost two laps early with an ill-handling Dodge, made those laps up with free passes under caution and fought all the way back to 13th. He actually gained two spots in the standings and is now eighth. Bobby Labonte finished 29th after a crash and dropped two spots to ninth, 46 points ahead of Harvick.
Jeremy Mayfield, meanwhile, finished ninth Sunday and trails Harvick by just 40 points. Kahne is 29 behind Mayfield and Martin is another 20 back, followed by Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray as only 133 points separates 10th from 15th in the standings.
In other words, it's getting crowded back there.
But for Johnson, who just seven races ago was 98 points behind Earnhardt Jr. in the standings, it's suddenly quite lonely at the top.
But not for long.