Jimmie Johnson wins, closes in on third title

AVONDALE, Ariz. - It rained in the desert, ABC ditched NASCAR for videos of people getting hit in unfortunate places in variously painful ways and one driver's wrecked car wound up parked on the hood of another.

Amidst all that, however, normalcy was served in Sunday's Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway as Jimmie Johnson dominated to win the race and take a stranglehold on his third straight Sprint Cup championship.

Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet led 217 of the 313 laps to win for the seventh time this season and for the third time in the nine races in this year's playoff. It was Johnson's third straight Cup win at Phoenix.

Carl Edwards, who'd won the previous two weeks to pull within 106 points in the championship standings, battled all day to finish fourth. That leaves Edwards 141 points behind going into next week's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson needs to finish 36th or better - 37th if he leads at least one lap - to join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win championship in three straight Cup seasons.

"I can't tell you how tough the last week has been," Johnson said in Victory Lane after finishing 15th one lap down last Sunday at Texas. "This is what I've worked my whole life for. ... A lot of hard work goes into this. ... I was going for maximum points and I got it."

By that time, though, ABC wasn't around for viewers in the Eastern and Central time zones. The network moved the race to ESPN2 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern - switching the network over to "America’s Funniest Videos" in the eastern half of the nation.

There was wackiness aplenty here, though, beginning with a 23½-minute rain delay early and ending with five caution flags in the final 50 laps that forced Johnson to endure a series of restarts. One of those wrecks was an eight-car melee on Lap 274 that left the rear of David Gilliland's Ford sitting on the hood of Scott Speed's Toyota. Nobody was injured, however.

Kurt Busch, who'd taken second away from Jamie McMurray on Lap 247, nipped at Johnson's rear bumper as much as he could on all those late restarts - but to no avail.

"We thought we were on our game," said Busch, who wound up second. "I wanted to get close enough to him to make him think about the big picture. I just couldn't get that close. I couldn't quite put enough pressure on him."

Busch said he had a great view of something that convinced him of what he was up against. McMurray got off pit road ahead of Johnson for a restart on Lap 218, but it took about a third of a lap for Johnson to rectify that.

"The way he went high and went low and was in the lead before you could snap your fingers," Busch said. "It was unbelievable. ... He bobbed and weaved, and he was gone. ... He's doing something special. ... It's a privilege to finish second to them."

Johnson led 217 of the final 233 laps after getting out front for the first time 81 laps into the race.

He won the pole here on Friday, but the weekend wasn't all cupcakes and lemonade for Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their team. Saturday's practice sessions were not quite what Johnson was looking for, and he was more than a little anxious about it.

"We had a decent car yesterday, but we knew we needed to be better," Johnson said. "Last night, Chad and the guys found what we needed and then Chad tried to convince me it was going to be OK.

"I was probably way too stressed out. I don't know how many times I called him last night. He finally yelled at me last night, ‘Stop calling me!’ I wanted him to make me feel better about it."

Johnson said his healthy championship lead will "take a little pressure off my brain next week" at Homestead. "We'll just go down there and do what we know how to do," he said.

"There's no need to do anything stupid, but how cool would it be to win out?"

Edwards never led Sunday, but he did fight his way up to a fourth-place finish to at least leave a mathematical chance for a miracle comeback.

"If he has some real terrible luck at Homestead we still have a chance," Edwards said. "But they did their job. We did the best we could - it's just too big of a spread right now. ... Congratulations to Jimmie and those guys. They're making this really tough."

McMurray wound up third for his fourth top-seven finish in the past five races. Denny Hamlin passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final two-lap dash after the final restart to get the final top-five position.

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