Teammate Jeff Gordon? Not so happy.
Running near the front all day Sunday in the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International, Johnson maneuvered his way back after falling out of the top 10 two-thirds through the 90-lap race and finished right where he started _ third.
He might not have won, but Johnson still had something to smile about. His finish left him one point ahead of Greg Biffle in the standings as teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. faltered late.
“I’m excited to be leading the points,” Johnson said. “Whoever the team is, I really believe that they get some much-needed experience with the pressure of the points lead late in the season. It’s just different than at any point in time. I look forward to the pressure on my team and myself.”
The five-time Cup champion entered Sunday’s race in fourth place, eight points behind Earnhardt.
Johnson now holds a one-point advantage over Greg Biffle, who finished sixth. Earnhardt fell back to fourth in the standings after a late spin and finished 28th. He had been as high as seventh two-thirds of the way through the race won by Marcos Ambrose.
“I just got in the corner and made a mistake and that was pretty much all there was to it,” Earnhardt said. “I was just overdriving the car.”
The top 10 in the points and two wild card teams qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, NASCAR’s version of a postseason that’s staged over the final 10 races of the year. Gordon held one wild card after his win last week at Pocono and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne the other on the strength of his two wins.
Ryan Newman and Gordon started Sunday’s race tied with 611 points apiece, and the two battled late in the race. They were neck and neck at lap 84 before Newman managed to slip by Gordon, who finished 21st after a spin on the oil-spattered track. Newman finished 11th to regain the wild card spot he lost last week.
“It was a rough day,” said Gordon, who ran as high as fourth but had handling issues until his final pit stop. “We can’t control what other people do. We can only control what we do. We’re trying to go out there and race as hard as we can and get the best finishes we can.”
Gordon was one of the victims of a track covered in oil from Bobby Labonte’s No. 47, and he was not happy.
“I was having a blast,” Gordon said. “To work that hard all day long, come all the way from way back and have it taken away because they don’t want to throw a caution, it’s pretty disappointing. It’s just unfortunate that that gets taken away from you because NASCAR doesn’t want to end the race under yellow (caution).
“I understand. You want to keep it entertaining and give the winner a shot at it, but there are a lot of other things going on out there, too. I think they completely disregarded that. Hey, it’s over now. We’ll move on.”
Kyle Busch, who had the race in hand when he spun out in the oil while leading to start the final lap, recovered to finish seventh and also moved four points past Gordon and trails Newman by just six with four races left until the Chase. All three drivers have one victory, as do Ambrose and Joey Logano, who are further back and need another win to have a chance.