MARK J. TERRILL / AP Enlarge
CHARLOTTE - It's certainly been the season of Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards has definitely proved himself a credible championship threat.
But lest anyone forget, this is Jimmie Johnson's favorite part of the year. The two-time defending NASCAR champion reminded everyone of that Sunday night with a dominating victory in California that most certainly served as a wake-up call to the competition.
Johnson led all but 22 of the 250 laps, then beat Greg Biffle to the finish line in Fontana by a cruise-control 2.076 seconds. It was his third win of the season and helped chip away at the lead Busch and Edwards will have over him when the Chase for the championship begins Sept. 14 at New Hampshire.
Plain and simple, it was a statement race.
Johnson will not quietly step aside. If he loses his title, he'll at least go down fighting.
"I feel like we're doing the right things to have a fighting chance at the championship," Johnson said after Sunday night's win.
That's bad news for Busch, Edwards, and everyone else in the 12-driver championship field.
See, this is the time of the year when Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team kicks into the highest gear. The No. 48 team races to win every week, but when the title is up for grabs, that crew literally takes no prisoners in pursuit of perfection.
Jeff Gordon certainly learned that the hard way last season, when Johnson's one-time mentor was tremendous during the 10-race title run. But his bid for a fifth Cup championship was cruelly denied when Johnson, his one-time protege and Hendrick teammate, was absolutely flawless down the stretch.
Johnson won four consecutive races to snatch the title from Gordon's grasp and finished his title march with a jaw-dropping average finish of 5.0. He was outside the top 10 only twice - a pair of 14th-place finishes in the build-up to his sweeps at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas, and Phoenix.
By the time Johnson crossed the finish line first at Phoenix, Gordon conceded. He visited Johnson in Victory Lane that day, jokingly bowing in the presence of greatness.
And last year wasn't even the first time Johnson has put on such a show. He won just one Chase race during his 2006 title run but clawed out four runner-up finishes in five races to win the championship.
He won a pair of Chase races in 2005 - the year he was in contention for the title headed into the season finale, but he wrecked at Homestead when he blew a tire. Johnson also won four of five races, and finished second in the Homestead finale, to claw back into title contention in 2004. He ultimately finished second in the standings that season, but it set the tone for how Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus would approach the Chase every year.
That's not to say they aren't serious during the 26-race "regular season." Johnson has 19 pre-Chase victories since 2004.
But he's been quiet this year, deferring to Busch's dominance and Edwards' recent emergence.
Busch has a Cup series-best eight victories this season - some of them by the same dominating standard Johnson showed Sunday night - and 18 overall spanning NASCAR's top three series. He's the Cup points leader and will start the Chase at the top of the standings with at least 80 bonus points with one more race to go.
Edwards has six Cup victories and is second in the standings. But his bonus points only stand at 50 because NASCAR docked him 10 when his race-winning car failed inspection at Las Vegas.
Either way, those two drivers have dominated the schedule while the champ faded from the headlines.
Johnson doesn't mind, though, knowing the upcoming stretch is really all that matters, and he's certainly among the contenders.
"We have three [wins] now, so we are halfway to Carl," he said. "I'm happy to see people are considering us as a realistic chance for the Chase and a championship contender because our results have shown that, and we have been chipping away at it and getting closer to those guys.
"They have set the world on fire. Between the two of them, they have dominated the first half of the season. I recognize that and give them the respect that they deserve for that. We still have 11 races, a lot of racing left in the season, almost a third left, and hopefully we can switch this around and finish up the season as the dominant car."
Sunday night was the first test toward getting there. Not only did Johnson make his Chase case, but his championship crew used the race to iron out any kinks before the stakes get so much higher.
With roughly 60 laps to go, Johnson could be heard over his in-race radio encouraging his crew to handle the pressure of running so far out front. That seasoned group is pretty solid, but Johnson wants them ready for every upcoming scenario.
"Being up there with a lot to lose, I think had our guys were under a different form of pressure than what they felt in a while," he said. "And to win this Chase, you're going to have to fight for wins every week, and every pit stop is going to count because you're going to have at least [Busch and Edwards] to deal with."35.2225 -80.83754