NASCAR's Chase for the championship broke wide open Sunday,
setting up what is likely to be a wild four-race finish.
Johnson took the lead from Bobby Labonte with 55 laps to go and
held it through several restarts to win the crash-filled Subway
500, while 2003 champion Matt Kenseth replaced Burton atop the
Johnson moved from seventh to third in the standings with four
races left, and appears to be the driver with the most momentum
heading into the final month.
"I'm just happy to finish where we should have," said Johnson,
who was denied at least a second-place finish at Talladega when he
was spun out on the last lap two weeks ago, then finished second
last week at Charlotte. "We've been running up front the last
three of four races and haven't been able to close the deal. Today
Kenseth assumed the points lead when Burton pulled his car into
the garage after just 217 laps because of engine trouble, and most
everyone took advantage.
Next week in Atlanta, seven drivers will start within 99 points
of Kenseth, who finished 11th on Sunday and seemed more concerned
about his performance than excited.
"It's great to be the leader, but we've got to start running
good," Kenseth said. "It's still pretty wide open. It's going to
be pretty exciting, I think, coming down to the last race. I'm glad
we are in the lead and if we can get going back on these last four
tracks like we were earlier in the year, I think we've got a shot
Kevin Harvick is now second, 36 points back, and Johnson is 41
points behind. Denny Hamlin moved into fourth, 47 back. Burton
dropped to 48 points off the pace, marking the first time the
points leader has changed in the second half of the playoffs.
"By no means do I think we are out of this thing," Burton
said. "We won't lay down. We'll go to Atlanta feeling like we have
as good a shot as anybody."
But Johnson, a two-time runner-up in the championship, made the
biggest move in the standings after starting the race 146 points
back. He quickly worked his way forward after being 10th on a
restart with 94 laps to go, passed Gordon for second with about 70
laps to go and put Labonte in his rearview mirror on the 446th of
From there, he made it look easy, pulling away on every restart
except the last one, when Hamlin, a rookie, nudged him and pulled
alongside. Johnson rebuffed the challenge, got back in front and
won by 0.545 seconds.
"Once I got pushed to the outside, I really felt like I was in
trouble," Johnson said of the duel, "but I was able to rally back
on the outside and get going, and once I got back going, I knew I
had a better car and could get away from him.
"He played with that line, but didn't cross it and I respect
him for it."
Hamlin said it may have been best that he never did get around
"I knew if I cleared him, he'd do the same thing to me going
into the next corner and odds are I would not have been able to
save it like he did," he said.
The race featured 18 cautions for 107 laps, and the 17th one
was, remarkably, the only one that really impacted Chase
contenders. It happened on lap 477 when Earnhardt and Kahne,
battling for sixth, bumped in Turn 3, sending Earnhardt spinning.
Kahne raced on and finished seventh; Earnhardt, who wound up
22nd, said he was to blame after driving too hard into the turn.
"I guess I need to get somebody on [the radio] to preach to me
to have more patience because I definitely can't take control of
myself," he said.
On the last restart, Hamlin stayed on Johnson's bumper heading
into the first turn and bumped him coming out of the second turn,
then pulled inside down the backstretch. Johnson stayed
side-by-side with him for an entire lap, then beat him coming off
the fourth turn to get in front and Hamlin seemed content to
protect second place.
Earlier, it looked like it might be the day when Gordon tied
Dale Earnhardt for sixth with 76 career victories, but Gordon's car
wasn't good enough to pull it off.
After pitting for four tires and fuel under a caution on lap 367
while most other teams stayed out, Gordon moved into third when
another caution flew with 100 to go.
But the four-time champion's car wasn't strong enough to pass
either leader Bobby Labonte or Casey Mears, and when Johnson
appeared on Gordon's back bumper with about 70 laps to go, it was
only a matter of time before he also zoomed past his teammate.
Labonte used the same strategy to get to the front, and it
"I feel like I stole something," he said.