He won the Subway 500 to jump four spots in the Nextel Cup Chase.
By GREG ENGLE
SPORTING NEWS NASCAR WIRE SERVICE
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson may have been down, but he showed Sunday he is never out.
Johnson proved Sunday he is still a title contender by winning the Subway 500 at Martinsville in dominating fashion, leading a race-high 245 laps, including the final 56.
The victory moved him to third from seventh in the points standings in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. Starting ninth, Johnson was in contention the entire afternoon, taking the lead for the first time on Lap 145. He is now 41 points behind new leader Matt Kenseth. Johnson has made up 124 points on first place in the past three races.
"It's a track that I came in and didn't think I'd ever get the hang of," said Johnson, who finished 35th in his Martinsville debut in 2002. "I'm happy to finish where we did. We've been running up front the last three or four races and haven't been able to close the deal, and today we did."
Johnson's vault in the points didn't come without some misfortune from the other Chase drivers, namely Jeff Burton, who came into the race with a 45-point lead over Kenseth.
On Lap 218, after struggling most of the race, Burton pulled his Chevrolet into the garage and parked it with engine failure. Burton lost four positions and left Martinsville fifth in points.
"It was something in the valve train," Burton said. "I'm pretty disappointed, but at the same time everybody's had trouble. It was our turn today. We won't lay down. We'll go to Atlanta feeling like we have as good a shot as anybody."
Four races left
There are four races remaining in the season, beginning next Sunday at Atlanta.
Johnson survived 18 cautions, one short of the race record, and a final charge from Denny Hamlin to get his fifth win of 2006 and the 23rd of his career, tying him with Ricky Rudd for 25th on the all-time list. It was Johnson's second victory at Martinsville.
Hamlin finished second after banging with Johnson for several laps after the final restart on lap 495. Johnson was able to pull away in the final two laps to win by .0535 seconds.
"I knew being the leader we'd get a shot at some point," Johnson said. "Once I got pushed to the outside I really felt like I was in trouble, but I was able to rally back from the outside and get going."
Kenseth started 20th and finished 11th. He leads second-place Kevin Harvick by 36 points. "We didn't run very good." Kenseth said." We didn't have a great car, and we didn't get a lot of room out there."
Harvick battled for a ninth-place finish. Early in the race, he told his crew he thought his transmission was failing. The transmission held together, but he was caught up in an incident on Lap 232 that damaged the left front of his Chevy. His crew needed several pit stops to repair the damage and keep Harvick in contention. He began the race 89 points out of first place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. appeared to be in excellent position to gain several spots. He ran in the top five most of the day, but with less than 23 laps to go, he dove to the bottom of Turn 3, bounced off the bottom of the turn and spun. The spin also involved Chase contender Kasey Kahne, who spun as well. Both cars made no contact and were able to continue. Earnhardt finished 22nd, Kahne seventh. Earnhardt lost a spot in the standings and is now sixth; Kahne held fast to eighth.
"That was my mistake," Earnhardt said. "I was trying too hard. I felt like we were quicker than Kahne, so I was anxious to get all I could and get around him. I was under him, but the rear brakes locked and the wheels started hopping and I spun out. It got down to the end of the race and I got greedy. I can't blame it on nobody but myself."