The reigning cup champion dominated the second half of the Sharp Aquos 500, a race that began in bright sunshine with temperatures over 100 degrees and finished under the lights with the night not much cooler. It was his series-high fifth victory of the season, but his first since May 6 at Richmond.
This one was just as important, though, with NASCAR awarding a 10-point bonus for each win this season in seeding the 12 drivers who will compete in the Chase. If the Chase began next week, Johnson would be the top seed, with 10 more points than Hendrick Motorsports teammate and series points leader Jeff Gordon, who has four wins.
"We're fortunate to be in that situation," Johnson said. "That's very satisfying. The season is all about a championship, especially when you get in the Chase. It's time for the pressure to pick up and the hard work to start. And my guys are ready for it."
There was some shuffling at the bottom of the Chase contenders, with Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch each moving up one spot to 10th and 11th, respectively, while Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick slipped from 10th to 12th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., began and ended the race in 13th, despite a solid fifth-place finish. But he did cut his margin from 158 behind Busch coming in to 128 behind Harvick heading into next Saturday night's race at Richmond, the final event before the start of the stock car playoff.
"It was so hot out there you kind of get aggravated," said Earnhardt, who looked completely drained after getting out of his car. "I'm tired, real tired."
Told his point deficit heading to Richmond, Junior said, "I don't know much about the system, I never cared to. I just go out there and run as hard as I can. It doesn't look like we're going to make it, but we're not going to quit trying until they tell us we're not (in it)."
Johnson, who took the lead for good after a series of green flag pit stops 22 laps from the end of the 250-lap event, easily held off runner-up Carl Edwards in the waning laps. Kyle Busch finished third, followed by Jeff Burton, Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, Truex, Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch.
Harvick finished 13th.
The Associated Press News Service
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