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Friday, July 25, 2014

Johnson moves up in Chase

By RANDY COVITZ
Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Kan. —Jimmie Johnson could be using Kansas Speedway as his personal springboard to another NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Johnson, the five-time defending champion, led 197 of 267 laps, and by winning the Hollywood Casino 400 on Sunday, moved from fifth to third place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings.

Just three weeks ago, skeptics were counting Johnson out of contention when he fell to 10th place in the standings after the first race in the Chase. Now, after a second-place last week at Dover and the win at Kansas, he is just four points behind Carl Edwards — who finished fifth — with six races to go.

"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff," Johnson said of those who predicted the end of Johnson's reign. "I live in my little world, and I know what my team is capable of. We showed what we're capable of when ... we're all performing at the top of our game, and hopefully we can do that for six more weeks."

The victory was Johnson's second Sprint Cup win at Kansas Speedway. Johnson's win in 2008 propelled him to his third Cup championship. Last year, Johnson seized the points race with a second-place finish at Kansas on his way to his fifth title.

With another 1.5-mile track coming up next week at Charlotte, the man they call Five Time could be clearing his trophy case for No. 6.

"A lot of people had said the magic was gone," team owner Rick Hendrick said of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team, "and you look at Dover, and they just put their heads down when it counts and got the job done. I don't think we'll know who's going to win this thing until the last lap at Homestead with this points system. Anything can happen."

To win on a delightful Sunday afternoon, Johnson had to win a green-white-checkered finish against non-Chase contender and future Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne and thrilled the sellout crowd of 82,000 with his win by a margin of 0.548 seconds.

Brad Keselowski, who won last spring's Cup race at Kansas Speedway and Saturday's Nationwide race, finished third and moved into fourth in the points race. Keselowski asked his team owner, Roger Penske, to check their winning Nationwide car for fingerprints.

"I'm pretty sure Jimmie stole the car and put new decals on it because he was gone," Keselowski said of Johnson's Chevrolet. "He was fast."

Johnson's win was the 55th win of his Sprint Cup career, tying Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time list, and it was his 20th win the Chase. Johnson is the only driver to have one at least one race in all eight years of the Chase.

More importantly, it snapped a 21-race drought without a win for Johnson, dating to Talladega last April, the longest streak without a win in Johnson's 10-year Sprint Cup career. He had gone 19 races without a win from the end of the 2002 season and start of the 2003 season, his first two years in the series.

"I can't say that I've known or thought about the number," Johnson said. "There are probably three or four opportunities to win that we just didn't take advantage of, and that's on everybody's back. I've messed up, we've had pit road issues, we've had a lot of little things go wrong, and we've had a lot of second place finishes that should have been wins.

"The competitor in all of us, we've known that we've been close. So yeah, we want to win and we want a lot more wins to start the Chase for bonus points, but it's been more about missed opportunity than really a number of races that we haven't won. I'm shocked that 21 is the longest... that doesn't sound like many races to me."

This win came down to the green-white-checkered that followed a caution caused by teammate Jeff Gordon's blown engine. On the restart, Johnson hit the gas early, and Kahne spun the tires on his Toyota.

"I thought if I could get a good restart I'd have a shot because my tires were a little fresher than his," Kahne said. "Jimmie was the car to beat all day, so I knew he was going to be fast once we got going, and he took off before I expected him to."

Johnson's closing fast on both the race and the Chase has not surprised teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"The media made a big deal out of the runs he was having and they were a long ways out of the lead in the points, but that's a great race team," Earnhardt said. "You don't wion five in a row on luck. You don't just trip over the championship trophy.

"You do it because you're great. And they'll win the championship this year if anybody doesn't get going."

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