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Jimmie Johnson went into the penultimate race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Phoenix International Speedway looking to add to his seven-point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth. He accomplished that Sunday in his No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS after starting from the pole and surviving a few scary moments on the track to finish third. He now is 28 ahead of Kenseth and 34 ahead of the only other driver in mathematical contention, Kevin Harvick, who won the AdvoCare 500k.
Johnson didn’t have an easy time for all 312 laps. On the first lap of the race, the No. 22 of Joey Logano slipped and got inside of Johnson sending his Kobalt Tools Chevy back several spots in the field. He made up ground in the ensuing laps and just over 100 laps into the event, the five-time champion brought his machine down pit road for four tires, reporting that his car was tight, prompting crew chief Chad Knaus to make slight chassis adjustments to approve the handling.
Johnson continued to run well and as the race played out, the field became separated with different pit cycles. On lap 164, Johnson came down for four tires and a slight chassis adjustment. He restarted in 25th position but by lap 187 was back inside the top 15. Johnson led a lap as he came down pit road for the final time on lap 247 and with 50 laps to go was 16th. A late debris caution with 31 laps to go brought some competitors down pit road but Johnson stayed out. He would hold on in the closing laps, avoiding several close calls on the track, to record his seventh top-five in the nine races run so far in the Chase.
“I knew I had a great race car and that makes life a lot easier, said Johnson who recorded his 14th top-five finish in 21 races at Phoenix. “I really had to fall back on my dirt driving skills racing out here in the desert all the years that I did. All those incidences were close. The second one, I thought I was hitting the wall so I was glad that we got it gathered back up and got it going. Then the No. 20 (Kenseth) wasn’t having the best day, so after that issue we came to pit road and left and I expected him to be ahead of me and he was behind me. So at that point I knew I was in good shape relative to the championship battle; knew I had a good car, knew I could get through traffic, and I knew it was just about getting points on him at that point.”
Harvick won the AdvoCare 500k to score his 23rd career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his fourth at Phoenix.
Kasey Kahne finished 1.796 seconds behind Harvick in the runner-up spot, while Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-five. Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Logano and Ryan Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were eight caution periods for 49 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 312-lap race.
Just one race remains before a champion is crowned following the Ford EcoBoost 400 Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Heading into the season finale, the top-13 Chase drivers rank as follows, with only Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick eligible for the title.
The Ford EcoBoost 400 begins at 3 p.m. EST with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 2 p.m.