FONTANA, Calif. -- A few accidents and some bad luck since his last win had Jimmie Johnson worried he might not get a chance to defending his NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
But a late-season surge, culminated by a victory in Sunday's night's race at California Speedway, has guaranteed Johnson a spot in the 12-man Chase for the championship and no worse than a tie for the top seed in the 10-race stock car playoff.
``I was certainly concerned,'' Johnson said after winning the Sharp Aquos 500, his series-leading fifth win of the season and the 28th of his career. ``We had great race cars and bad luck. If you get four or five bad races in a row, you can get behind.''
But, now, Johnson has joined Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch among the eight drivers who have clinched spots in the Chase with one more race left in the ``regular season.''
With team owner Rick Hendrick looking on and smiling, Johnson said, ``Rick has three cars capable of winning the championship, with Kyle and Jeff and me. When I first think of the fight for the championship, I think of my teammates. There are a lot of great cars out there, but I think the three of us are going to be tough.''
Johnson dominated the second half of the 250-lap event, a race that began in bright sunshine with temperatures over 100 degrees and finished under the lights with the night not much cooler. It was his first win since May 6 at Richmond.
``We've been close,'' Johnson said of the long victory drought. ``We've been running good. But it was nice to get the job done tonight.
``Historically, we start the season strong, have a little bit of a struggle when we get to the warm weather and then get it going again. It seems like that's the way it's going and I'm just glad to be back in Victory Circle.''
This win was particularly important, with NASCAR awarding a 10-point bonus for each win this season in seeding the 12 drivers who will compete in the Chase. If the Chase began next week, Johnson would be the top seed, with 10 more points than series points leader and four-time Cup champion Gordon, who has four wins.
``We're fortunate to be in that situation,'' Johnson said. ``That's very satisfying. The season is all about a championship, especially when you get in the Chase. It's time for the pressure to pick up and the hard work to start. And my guys are ready for it.''
There was some shuffling at the bottom of the Chase contenders, with Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch each moving up one spot to 10th and 11th, respectively, while Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick slipped from 10th to 12th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., began and ended the race in 13th, despite a solid fifth-place finish. But he did cut his margin from 158 behind Busch coming in to 128 behind Harvick heading into next Saturday night's race at Richmond.
``It was so hot out there you kind of get aggravated,'' said Earnhardt, who looked completely drained after getting out of his car. ``I'm tired, real tired.''
Told his point deficit heading to Richmond, Junior said, ``I don't know much about the system, I never cared to. I just go out there and run as hard as I can. It doesn't look like we're going to make it, but we're not going to quit trying until they tell us we're not (in it).''
Car owner Rick Hendrick smiles in Victory Lane after his driver, Jimmie Johnson, won the NASCAR Nextel Cup Sharp Aquos 500 at the California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007.
Johnson, who took the lead for good after a series of green flag pit stops 22 laps, led 65 of the last 82 laps on the two-mile oval. He easily held off runner-up Carl Edwards in the waning laps, although it appeared for a while that Edwards might overtake him.
``I thought he was going to be a sitting duck,'' said Edwards, who overcame a pit collision with rookie Juan Pablo Montoya early in the race. ``I said on the radio that I thought it was going to be me and Kyle (Busch). It's immensely disappointing. Running second is terrible.''
Kyle Busch, who led a race-high 97 laps, finished third, followed by Jeff Burton, Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, Truex, Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch. Harvick finished 13th.
Kurt Busch, who started from the pole, was happy to be closer to clinching a spot in the Chase -- 13 points ahead of Harvick and only 20 behind Truex in 10th and 25 behind Clint Bowyer in ninth.
``I feel pretty solid,'' he said. ``You know there's a guy behind us now to give us a little bit of cushion. It's going to be an interesting race in Richmond.''
Bowyer and Truex need only to start at Richmond to make the Chase field, while Kurt Busch can clinch by finishing 36th or better and Harvick by finishing 32nd or better on Richmond's .75-mile oval.
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