Jimmie Johnson drove another superb race on Sunday, scoring his seventh win of the year and all but guaranteeing his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Johnson enjoyed a perfect race on the one-mile Phoenix, Arizona oval, qualifying his Hendrick Chevrolet on the pole, leading most of the way and taking his third win in a row at the track.
The peerless performance put Johnson 141 points clear of his only remaining championship challenger Carl Edwards who finished fourth in Phoenix. To wrap-up his third consecutive title and join Cale Yarborough as the only other driver in NASCAR history to win three championships in a row, Johnson need finish no better than 36th in next weekend’s season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“This sport is challenging,” Johnson remarked. “I can’t tell you how tough the last week has been. It’s just emotional regardless of whether you’ve got a big points lead or not. It’s what I’ve worked my whole life for and I know everybody else in this team has, too.
“It’s a weight on your shoulders,” he added. “It’s a tough one. I’m proud of this team to rise up each weekend the way it has. I can’t thank everyone in the team and all the sponsors enough. A lot of hard work goes into this and it’s nice to see it rewarded. I just can’t believe it. When I started, way back when, I didn’t think that all this would come together and I’d have a chance to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and be here looking at a third (championship). It’s pretty cool.”
Carl Edwards qualified his Roush Fenway Ford a disappointing fifteenth but worked his way through the field to finish a strong fourth behind Kurt Busch’s Penske Dodge and Jamie McMurray’s Roush Fenway Ford. Edwards has won eight races this year and is now the only man left standing with any hope of snatching the championship from Johnson. To do so Edwards must win in Homestead-Miami with Johnson failing to finish.
“We had a great run today,” Edwards said. “But Jimmie’s just doing a great job. We’ve got to keep our heads up because it’s still possible, if not probable. But I guarantee you we’re just going to go to Homestead and give it a hundred percent and hope that something happens.”
Team-mate Greg Biffle is third in points but was eliminated from the championship stakes after finishing eleventh in Phoenix. Johnson’s team-mate and mentor Jeff Gordon was also out of luck, failing to finish after his engine apparently dropped a valve. While Johnson has enjoyed a tremendous season, four-time champion Gordon has been unable to win a race for the first time since his rookie year with Hendrick back in 1993.
At the same time the 33-year old Johnson is on the brink of making a little bit of American racing history. Johnson is a clean and tidy gentleman racer in one of the roughest, toughest forms of motor sport. He’s a good guy, low-key and soft-spoken, but a tremendous racer who may well be the sport’s cleanest, most respected champion in 2008. If he equals Yarborough’s record next weekend Johnson will deserve every plaudit he receives as he sets the global standard for how to go racing.