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It's Jimmie Johnson's crown to lose

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Without getting into that old joke about death and taxes, a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship is one step closer to inevitable for Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson again demonstrated his peerless mastery of NASCAR's Chase for the Cup format Sunday in the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway with an efficient and effective drive to third place.

The driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet dodged a couple of close calls and quietly emerged where everyone expected him to be at the end of 312 hard-fought laps: near the front and ahead of his main championship contenders.

Sure, Kevin Harvick won the race, keeping him third in the Sprint Cup standings and still within mathematical contention to win the 2013 title. But Johnson lost only five points to Harvick, who is now 34 points back. More importantly, he increased his lead over his closest chaser, Matt Kenseth, who endured a difficult day on the way to 23rd place.

Kenseth is now 28 points behind Johnson, who needs to finish 23rd or better next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway to clinch his sixth Cup series crown, and the first since reeling off five consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010.

Crew Chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team never really got a handle on Kenseth's Toyota throughout the Phoenix weekend. Within a couple of stints, Kenseth knew it was going to be a long day.

"The day is pretty self-explanatory -- we just really struggled," he said. "It was the first day we've had like that all season long, and it speaks volumes about my team that we didn't have a day like that all year, where we've been off far enough where we couldn't stay on the lead lap.

"It was an unfortunate and disappointing day, but man … we did the best of everything we could do. We were just off a little bit."

As everyone knows, you can't afford to have an off day when going up against the likes of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports. Coming into Phoenix with the same seven-point championship lead he clung to a year ago, Johnson was determined to not repeat the mistakes that allowed Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski to steal the crown in the last two races.

Mission accomplished. Escaping minor contact with Joey Logano on the opening lap and Carl Edwards just past midrace, Johnson remained composed and collected and put himself in strong position for the season finale in Florida.

"We had a very strong race car, so that made life a lot easier, especially comparing this year's effort to last year's effort in the Chase," Johnson remarked. "We did what we should have. I hate that we missed it a little bit there for the win, but still, all in all, a very, very strong performance for us. We're heading to Homestead in the position that we want to be in. But we have to run 400 miles and finish that race."

Johnson admitted he was surprised that Kenseth and the No. 20 car had such a bad day.

"Surprised, but at the same time I went through it last year," he said. "It can happen. I thought in the final practice session they made a nice run and got themselves where they needed to be. But clearly today that wasn't the case.

"Everybody is so eager to predict the champion, but you have to play the game and run the race and stuff happens," JJ continued. "I sympathize with Matt -- we were in that position last year. We still had a shot at Hometead of beating [Keselowski], but we made mistakes again that took us out of it."

Indeed, Johnson followed up his 32nd-place finish at Phoenix in November 2012 with a 36th-place run at Homestead. But the bad result at Homestead was somewhat self-inflicted, with mistakes made trying too hard to make up for the ground lost a week earlier.

Although he needs to finish only 23rd at Homestead to earn a historic sixth Cup championship -- a total that would put him second only to Richard Petty's and Dale Earnhardt's seven on the all-time list -- Johnson hinted that he's going to race to win.

"We're going to go down there and race as hard as we can," he said. "We need to treat Friday and Saturday as if we need to win. I think the safest place on the racetrack is up front, but we'll have to see how the race develops and see where we are relative to the 20 car.

"The 29 has done a good job winning some races," Johnson said of Harvick's team. "If we have a hiccup or some kind of mistake in Homestead, it will be a race between the 20 and the 29. But if we go down there and run as we should, we should be able to take care of business."

While Kenseth started the Chase strongly with two consecutive race wins. Harvick has come on strong of late, with a pair of wins of his own. The Phoenix victory was especially gratifying after the emotions that spilled over when Harvick and Ty Dillon, who is team owner Richard Childress' grandson, feuded following an incident in the Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville two weeks ago.

"There's no better way to go out than to do what we did this year," said Harvick, who announced before the 2013 season that he will move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. "We had conversations after Martinsville that made us closer as people, and as we move forward will probably make us closer as friends. It made us understand how successful we've been together and for each other. That situation really put into perspective everything we were able to accomplish."

As successful as the Harvick-Childress partnership has been since 2001, it still pales in comparison to the teaming of Johnson and Hendrick, who have dominated NASCAR's Chase era with uncommon authority.

"Those guys are good at what they do," praised Harvick. "We had one stumble in the Chase at Loudon, with a 20th-place finish, but our average finish the last nine weeks has been pretty good. We've won a couple races, and I feel we've probably had the best Chase we've ever had, and here we are still 34 points behind."

It seems everyone except Johnson thinks that JJ's sixth Cup title is merely a formality. Or an inevitability.

But the five-time champion himself is going to bear down until the very end.

"There are so many variables in one of our races -- more variables, I think, than in any other pro sport out there," Johnson said. "We don't take any of these weekends lightly, even with a nice points lead. There's still a lot of pressure to get the job done and it's no layup, at all.

"I'm in a position I want to be in," he added. "I'm just excited to go racing."