- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2008

AVONDALE, Ariz. | They popped the champagne in Victory Lane and celebrated as if Jimmie Johnson had just won another championship.

Almost, but he’s not quite there.

Johnson moved closer to his record-tying third straight NASCAR title Sunday, trouncing the field in the Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway to deliver a knockout punch to Carl Edwards’ championship hopes.

Johnson needs to finish 36th or better next week in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to join Cale Yarborough (1976-78) as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three straight titles.

“He’s doing something pretty special,” said 2004 champion Kurt Busch, who finished second. “It’s just tough to beat.”

Johnson came into Phoenix on the ropes after a subpar 15th-place finish last week at Texas allowed Edwards to take a sizable bite out of his points lead. Johnson rebounded to win the pole at Phoenix but struggled through Saturday’s final practice to send his stress level through the roof.

As crew chief Chad Knaus worked late into the night on a new setup and strategy, Johnson harassed him with phone calls that didn’t stop until Knaus ordered his driver to leave him alone.

“The garage opens at 8:01, and he calls me right away,” Knaus said. “I was like, ‘Dude, leave me alone. I need to go to work.’ I told him to go back to sleep.”

Whatever changes they made worked; Johnson led a race-high 217 of 313 laps to stretch his lead in the standings from 106 points to an almost insurmountable 141.

“This is what I’ve worked my whole life for,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a great points lead. We’ll go down to Homestead and try to wrap this baby up.”

The win was his third straight at Phoenix and had Edwards on the edge of conceding after his fourth-place finish.

“If he would have some terrible luck in Homestead, we still have a chance,” Edwards said. “We did the best we could, but it’s too big of a spread right now. It’s possible - not probable but possible.”

Not with the way Johnson is running.

Johnson has made a mockery of the Chase format, reeling off 14 wins in 49 races since NASCAR adopted the format in 2004. He contended for the title in 2004 and 2005 only to come up just short both times.

He’s on the verge of joining Yarborough, David Pearson, Lee Petty and Darrel Waltrip as a three-time champion. Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, has four titles; Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty won a NASCAR-record seven.

Johnson has done it in dominant fashion. He has finished in the top 10 in seven Chase races; his lowest finish was that 15th at Texas.

But he still had a sizable lead on Edwards and could have clinched Sunday. The throng of friends from his hometown of El Cajon, Calif., made the trip to Phoenix and crowded his pit box to watch him tick off the laps. When he passed Jamie McMurray on a late restart, his friends - who included baseball players Brian and Marcus Giles - pumped their fists in celebration.

Johnson started from the pole but gave way to McMurray on the first lap. He didn’t take the lead until Lap 81 but cruised from there.

McMurray briefly moved out front again after a round of late pit stops, but Johnson blew past him in Turn 2 of a restart and was hardly challenged again. Kurt Busch made a brief run at him in the closing laps, but graciously settled for second.

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