- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2009

FONTANA, Calif. | Jimmie Johnson sat in his No. 48 Chevrolet during a lengthy red-flag delay six laps from the finish at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday and worried he didn’t have enough car to hold off Jeff Gordon.

Gordon, second next to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, had no such fears.

It’s California. It’s the Chase. It’s Johnson’s time.

“What else can you say? They’re the best out there,” Gordon said after Johnson roared away from the field to win the 500-mile race and take the lead in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship. “They’ve won the last three championships. They’re going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don’t see how they lose it.”

Johnson’s fourth win at the 2-mile oval propelled him into the lead in the standings for the first time all season. He’ll take a 12-point lead over Mark Martin into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte.

Given the way Johnson dominated the second half of the race while picking up his fifth Sprint Cup victory of the season and 45th of his career, don’t expect him easily to give up the top spot he has made his own during his historic run.

Johnson is hardly ready to declare himself the favorite to capture a record fourth straight title, not even after his 16th career Chase win. He enjoyed an uncharacteristically drawn-out postrace celebration at a track he loves, one that took so long he needed to be reminded to go to Victory Lane.

“Today we did a good job of it, but there are still six more times to stub our toes,” he said. “So we’ll have to stay on top of things and do what we’ve been able to do in the past once again.”

There was certainly a familiar feeling creeping in among Johnson’s contenders after watching the native Californian stamp himself as the Chase favorite heading into the final six weeks.

Juan Pablo Montoya was third, his fourth straight top-five finish since the Chase began. Yet he has failed to make up any ground on the Chase leader. He started the playoffs 40 points behind Martin and now finds himself trailing Johnson by 58.

“We have four or five in a row, and I’ve been losing points to the leader,” Montoya said. “[You’re not] going to make any points on anybody. Everybody that runs good is going to be there. You just got to make sure you don’t lose any.”

While Johnson surged, several Chase contenders stumbled. Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers all saw their Chase hopes likely evaporate for good.

Hamlin was leading with 60 laps to go when he collided with Montoya on a restart. He spun into a barrier at the end of pit road and quickly drove back to the garage. He attempted to get back on the track after missing 25 laps but was black-flagged for not reaching minimum speed.

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