The heat’s off Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is a proud Californian but, after three straight days of unusually oppressive heat, the reigning NASCAR Nextel Cup champion sped from the state as fast as he could.
The El Cajon native powered his No. 48 Chevrolet to the front and then held off Carl Edwards to win the caution-plagued Sharp Aquos 500 on Sunday at his hometown track of California Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, finished fifth to keep his Chase hopes alive, but just barely.
It was Johnson’s series-high fifth win of the season and his second at the sweeping two-mile oval in Fontana. Johnson won here in 2002 for his first Cup victory.
“We had our stuff right at the end when it mattered,” said Johnson, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports.
The win also gives Johnson -- who’s sixth in points -- a leg up in the Chase for the Cup, the series’ 10-race playoff among the top 12 drivers in points.
The field will be set after next weekend’s race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Johnson already is locked into the Chase.
The dozen drivers start the Chase with their points reset to 5,000, but they also get 10 bonus points for each victory. So Johnson, 31, would start with at least 5,050 and would be the top-seeded driver in the Chase.
Earnhardt, stock-car racing’s most popular driver, left Fontana 13th in points just as he arrived. He closed the gap on the 12th spot -- now held by Kevin Harvick, who finished 14th Sunday -- to 128 points after coming into the race 158 points behind 12th place.
But Harvick can clinch the final Chase berth by finishing 32nd or better at Richmond, regardless of how Earnhardt finishes that race.
“It doesn’t look like we’re going to make it, but we ain’t gonna quit trying until they say we aren’t in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “We just need to win some races.”
Only two Chase spots are effectively still up for grabs. Eight already have locked in spots: Jeff Gordon (Johnson’s teammate and the points leader), Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Johnson, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch.
And Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., currently ninth and 10th in points, need only to start at Richmond to clinch their spots in the playoff.
Sunday’s race started in the late-afternoon amid yet another day of triple-digit temperatures in Southern California. It ended under the lights but it was still 93 degrees when Johnson took the checkered flag.
“Hot, tired, real tired,” an exhausted Earnhardt said after getting out of his Chevrolet.
The heat also was expected to keep many spectators at home, and it was evident that not all of the speedway’s 92,000 seats were sold. But NASCAR estimated the crowd, including those in the infield, at 85,000.
The race also saw a speedway-record 16 different leaders and a track-tying 11 caution periods.
Johnson was hot early in the season, winning four of the first six races, as Hendrick dominated the sport. But he cooled during the summer and dropped several places in the points standings.
Even so, “I didn’t think we wouldn’t be back in Victory Lane,” he said. “It’s time for the hard work to start. We’re really hitting our stride when we need to.”
Early in Sunday’s race, Johnson wasn’t even running in the top 10. “But we adjusted the car to run on the bottom [of the track] and it paid off at the end,” he said.
Johnson won by 1.9 seconds over the Ford of Edwards, who drives for Roush Fenway Racing. Johnson teammate Kyle Busch was third and Jeff Burton was fourth for Richard Childress Racing.
“For a while I thought we were going to catch [Johnson] and then we just kind of all evened out,” Edwards said, adding that he even said to his team radio that “I feel like it’s me and Kyle racing for the win here.”
Johnson, Busch and Earnhardt also were among the 16 leaders in the race, which broke the previous track high of 15 set five previous times.
Pole-sitter Kurt Busch of Penske Racing South finished ninth in a Dodge and moved up to 11th in points.
His teammate Ryan Newman, who was 14th in points and only 17 points behind Earnhardt when the race started, saw his Chase hopes all but vanish when his Dodge suffered engine failure with 55 laps remaining. He finished 39th.
“We had a competitive car, but so much for the Chase,” he said.
There were several crashes and spins that brought out 11 caution periods, tying the previous track record of set twice before in 2004 and 2005.
A six-car melee on the front straightaway with 70 laps remaining collected Gordon, along with Riverside’s David Gilliland and his teammate Ricky Rudd.
Rudd, who made his 900th career Cup start Sunday, was holding his left arm and shoulder after climbing from the car. NASCAR said he was treated at a local hospital and released, but didn’t immediately know the extent of his injury.
Michael Waltrip escaped injury after a scary incident early in the race, when a blown tire on his Toyota Camry sparked a fire that engulfed the underside of his car.
After Waltrip stopped on the infield near Turn 3, the 6-foot-5 driver jumped out as the safety crew extinguished the fire.
“It started flaming up and I had to get out in a hurry,” he said.
In another crash, Robby Gordon of Orange hit the outside wall coming out of Turn 4 and crossed the start-finish line traveling backward before his heavily damaged Ford slid to a stop in the infield. He too was unhurt and finished 41st.