Johnson chases down top spot

With two races left, the defending Cup champ overtakes Gordon with his third win in a row.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published November 5, 2007

FORT WORTH, Texas - Jeff Gordon stood on pit road and wondered what a four-time champion has to do to get a fifth title.

Clint Bowyer hopped the pit wall and fled to his motor coach, mourning a first one that will not be this season.

Jimmie Johnson left those who would deny him consecutive Nextel Cup championships flummoxed and in his wake Sunday at the Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. If there was still a sunset, Johnson likely would have ridden off into it.

Instead, he finished a seven-lap, fender-to-fender tussle by passing Matt Kenseth with two laps remaining, winning his series-best ninth race and third in a row to pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for the points lead with two races remaining.

"I had to go for it," Johnson said. "That's the spot I feel Jeff and I are both in in these remaining races. Every spot counts."

Kenseth was second, 0.944 seconds back, followed by Martin Truex, Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman.

Johnson entered the race nine points behind Gordon, but he will arrive at Phoenix International Speedway for the Checker Auto Parts 500 with a 30-point bulge, the leader for just the fourth week this season. His margin is not insurmountable, but Johnson is making a mockery of the math.

"Thirty is not too much, but the biggest thing right now is we're just getting beat, and those guys are winning races," said Gordon, the seventh-place finisher who has led 26 of 34 weeks this season and lost a 317-point lead when the points were reset for the 10-race Chase for the Championship. "We have to go put some pressure back on them and outperform them."

Bowyer crew chief Gil Martin, now 181 points behind Johnson, said there was no amount of out-performing to revive his driver's hopes after a 19th-place finish.

"I think it was frustrating for everybody," he said. "We've had such a good run every week, and we had another good run tonight. ... Now, it's just a mathematical long shot, I'm sure. ... It's possible, but it's not very possible. They're going to have to oversleep or something in Phoenix."

Gordon complained of an ill-handling car most of the race, but crew chief Steve Letarte had tweaked it into his most competitive after a pit cycle with 36 laps left. Gordon restarted seventh, with Johnson second behind Kenseth, but was unable to work his way any further through the field and amass enough points to hold onto the Chase lead. Johnson, meanwhile, slowly chased down Kenseth, engaging a gentlemanly high-speed duel. Both drivers momentarily lost control coming out of the corners as they angled for the proper line to finish the other, until Johnson nosed his No. 48 Chevrolet far enough ahead on the final lap to finish the 2003 series champion.

Second-year driver Bowyer appeared in position to keep the Chase a three-driver contest when he assumed sixth place after a restart on Lap 237, but his detection of a dreaded vibration all but ended his unlikely championship hopes. Though Bowyer radioed to Martin that the left rear was awry, his team changed only the right side tires because they had been on a short time and were more likely to have come loose. He fell to 19th pitting under green and slid two laps behind when he had to return to have the actual problem fixed.

"I guess after the restart, we spun the tires and it probably loosened the left wheels up enough to where it started vibrating," Martin said. "Since we'd just pitted we thought - well, maybe we just hoped - it was the right rear and we had to come back. Hindsight, yeah, I wish we'd taken four on that."

Against Johnson right now, that's simply not good enough.

Brant James can be reached at brant@tampabay.com or 727 893-8804.