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Johnson On The Brink Of History

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Jimmie Johnson moved to within tasting distance of a historic fourth consecutive title with a dominating win at Phoenix.

Johnson so came into the race, the penultimate event in the 26-race schedule of NASCAR's premier series, with a 73 point lead over Mark Martin, and quickly set about extending the margin.

The start of the 312-lap 500km race saw last week's winner Kurt Busch jump out to an early lead, overhauling pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. on the first lap, the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver slotting into second with Johnson in third.

Busch was able to pull away, eeking out nearly a two second lead before Johnson was able to finally pass Truex, take second and begin to reel in the Penske driver. Also on the move was Mark Martin who after starting tenth had fallen back slightly at the start, but was now gaining ground, places and points as his Hendrick Chevrolet revelled in the long green flag stints, making his way back into the top ten, before inching his way up to fourth before the field made their first pitstops.

Busch maintained his lead after the pitstops, but Johnson maintained his challenge, finally passing the no.2 as they battled around slower cars, with only 30 cars on the lead lap due to the caution free first 100 laps. Now ahead, and with relatively clear track ahead Johnson was able to pull away, a lead he would never really be challenged for, though several would try.

Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and in the dying laps Jeff Burton would all try and match the pace of the no.48 car, and occasionally succeed. Martin was consistently faster, especially on long stints, but found himself just too far back to make a challenge for the lead, especially after a pair of pitstops under caution saw him fall back to fifth on a track that despite being 1-mile long, has more in common with a track half that length when it comes to track position. Any fears of the reliability of Johnson's car would prove unfounded, despite the car smoking for much of the race and often spitting flame from it's exhaust.

Burton looked capable of continuing the turn around at RCR by passing Johnson in the final 30 laps, but once more the no.48 found clear track and was able to keep his rivals at a safe distance to take the win, his third in as many years at the late season race in Arizona.

Burton finished second, with Hamlin, Mark Martin and Truex completing the top five. The win, plus the ten bonus points for leading the most laps saw Johnson open his points margin back up to 108 points, a margin that means that he only needs to finish 25th at Homestead to secure his title.

Kurt Busch finished sixth, ahead of Bowyer, Montoya, Gordon and David Reutimann, as 20 cars would finish all 312 laps, in a race characterised by long green runs.

Despite that the race will also be remembered for two track blocking crashes as the debut of the double-file restarts on Phoenix's narrow front-straight caused one crash and contributed to another.

The first saw the now familiar chain reaction on the restarts, when one driver's mistake ripples through the pack until contact ensues. The contact in question saw David Ragan spin Brad Keselowski into the side wall, with Jamie McMurray and Eric Darnell piling in, before Michael Waltrip, one of the last cars at the time hit Darnell's no.96, destroying the front of the Toyota.

That, however, was to prove only a warm up for the second accident, coming on lap 169, only two laps after another restart. Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun in turn four and quickly caused a traffic jam. Confronted with a blocked track, cars braking to avoid contact only to be pushed into the melee by those behind them. Of the eight cars involved Brian Vickers (continuing his appalling luck since he made the Chase) and Bobby Labonte would retire their battered cars, Earnhardt Jr. would stop for lengthy repairs while Tony Stewart, Keselowski and Scott Speed would all soldier on with varying amounts of damage.

“What a great car, what a great race team,” Johnson would say in Victory Lane.

That pretty much sums the season.

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