Johnson wins at Phoenix to cruise into finale

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) - November 15, 2009

Johnson led 238 laps Sunday to win for the fourth time in the last five races at Phoenix. It was his seventh victory of the season, and fourth since the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

More important, it stretched his lead to 108 points over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin heading into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson needs to finish 25th or better next week to grab a spot in NASCAR's record books.

Although his Hendrick team initially celebrated as if the title had been locked up, the No. 48 crew quickly settled down in Victory Lane.

"I can't put my guard down," Johnson said, "anything and everything can go wrong."

It did a week ago in Texas, where Johnson was caught in a wreck three laps into the race and had to sit inside his disabled race car as his crew did a total rebuild of the Chevrolet. He limped to a 38th-place finish that cost him 111 points in the standings.

It still left him with a 73-point lead over Martin headed into Phoenix, but Johnson refused to play it safe and coast to the win. He raced hard all weekend, intent on bouncing back with a dominating showing in the desert.

"We could have easily been beat down, and certainly there were some dark moments over the past week thinking about the points lost," Johnson said. "We didn't, though. But we saw in Texas that anything can happen, so we don't need to get too excited about this."

Martin finished fourth, respectable but not the showing he needed to move closer to the championship that has eluded him his entire NASCAR career. The sentimental favorite this year will likely finish second in the final standings for a fifth time.

"We gave it everything we had," Martin said.

He's the only driver still in mathematical contention to catch Johnson. Fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon will be eliminated as soon as Johnson starts next Sunday's race, and Johnson's win at Phoenix knocked everyone else out of contention.

Martin, however, is refusing to concede to Johnson and said he won't let up next week in Homestead as he tries to at least stave off Gordon for second in the final standings. But should Johnson coast to the win, Martin will be fine.

"We've still got to go to Homestead and run like this again, because we still have heat behind us, Jeff Gordon, especially," Martin said. "I definitely have been beat by the best - Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt. It wouldn't embarrass me if it was Jimmie Johnson as well.

Jeff Burton finished second and was followed by Denny Hamlin, Martin and pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr.

Kurt Busch, winner last week at Texas, finished sixth. Clint Bowyer was seventh and followed by Juan Pablo Montoya, Gordon, and David Reutimann.

Nobody was surprised to see Johnson in Victory Lane, particularly since he'd had such a rare race the week before.

"Anytime that Jimmie is down is not usually because of performance, it's usually because of an incident like last week," Hamlin said. "There was no doubt in my mind they were going to come this week and make a statement. Obviously leading all the laps pretty much and winning the race sends a statement out there that he is the best, that they're not going to be denied this year."

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