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Johnson takes commanding Cup lead over Gordon with fourth straight win

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Nobody could touch Jeff Gordon in his
prime, a three-year stretch when he won 33 races and consecutive
championships.

That was almost 10 years ago, and few thought they'd ever see a
driver capable of dominating the way Gordon once did.

Until Jimmie Johnson came along.

Johnson took command of the Nextel Cup championship Sunday,
winning at Phoenix International Raceway to open a daunting lead
over his teammate in the race to the title. It was his 10th win of
the season -- most since Gordon won 13 in 1998 -- and barring a
collapse in next week's finale, Johnson will become the first
driver to win consecutive championships since Gordon did it in 1997
and 1998.

But Johnson doesn't want to be compared to his mentor, the
four-time series champion.

"I certainly don't want to be called the next Jeff Gordon. I am
Jimmie Johnson. I've always done it my way," he said. "If you
look at our driving styles, our setups, look at everything we do,
we are on opposite ends. We do have some common interests, we are
close friends.

"But I am not Jeff Gordon, so let's just get that out of the
way."

No, he's not Gordon. But his work on the track makes it
impossible not to draw the comparisons.

"They're just unbelievably good," said Matt Kenseth, the 2003
champion. "They're as good as any group I've seen, including Jeff
in his heyday when he was winning 10 races a year and the
championship by over a hundred points."

Johnson can realistically do the same.

The defending Nextel Cup champion, heads to next week's season
finale in Homestead, Fla., with a comfortable 86-point lead over
Gordon. He needs to finish just 18th or better to win his second
championship in just six seasons.

"It's over. It's over," conceded Gordon. "Even if we win it,
it's because they have problems. While we'll accept it, we don't
want to do it that way.

"Those guys have flat-out killed everybody. And you've got to
give credit where credit is due."

Johnson was subdued in Victory Lane, and refused to claim the
title.

"Homestead is going to be a stressful weekend. We've got seven
more days, I'm just going to try to keep my mind clear and focus on
the things we need to do," Johnson said. "This is kind of where
we were last year. We just have to go down there and be smart and
see how it shakes out."

Gordon was off all day. He had a tire rub after making contact
with Kevin Harvick, and finished a disappointing 10th.

It was a crushing performance on a day when Johnson raced to his
fourth consecutive victory. He became the first driver to win four
straight in a season since Gordon did in 1998.

Gordon, who hand-picked Johnson to join Hendrick Motorsports
when the team expanded to four cars in 2002, marveled at how strong
his protege has been during this championship hunt. It's put it
nearly out of reach for Gordon, who dominated the "regular
season" and opened a lead of more than 300 points before the field
was reset for the Chase.

"Unless you lead every lap and beat Jimmie Johnson to win the
race, we don't have a shot," Gordon said. "We're just coming up
short at a crucial time. Those guys have just knocked it out of the
ballpark, and it would be tough to beat that even if we were
hitting on all eight cylinders."

Although it will take a total collapse next week by a team that
rarely falters for Johnson to not win the championship, crew chief
Chad Knaus wasn't ready to claim the Cup just yet.

"Obviously were real happy to extend the points lead," Knaus
said. "But going into Homestead, you never know. You never know
what's going to happen.

"We could easily have an issue and not finish the race. We just
have to stay focused and keep our heads down."

Greg Biffle finished second and Kenseth, his Roush Fenway
Racing teammate, was third. Tony Stewart was fourth and was
followed by Ryan Newman, Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.

Kyle Busch, who was trying to become the first driver to win
three of NASCAR's national races at the same track on the same
weekend, finished eighth. Busch won the Truck Series race here on
Friday, the Busch Series race on Saturday, but never made it all
the way to the front in the Cup event after starting 38th.

The race mathematically eliminated everyone but Johnson and
Gordon from title contention, so regardless of what happens in
Homestead, Hendrick Motorsports will win its seventh Cup title.

But it was Johnson and his No. 48 team that have laid claim to
the championship, refusing to play it conservatively and merely
chase points. This crew has raced for wins -- he went hard after
Kenseth in the closing laps for a victory at Texas last week -- and
did the same thing here.

Not comfortable settling into second place, he passed Truex Jr. for the lead with 24 laps to go en route to the 33rd
victory of his career and first at Phoenix.