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Not even adversity stops Johnson

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 6, 2009

The Pennsylvania 500 separated the Chasers from the boys.

With time running out to squeeze in one of just 12 positions, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne showed they didn’t want to be left behind when the Sprint Cup Series postseason begins five races from now.

Hamlin won Monday, Montoya and Kahne finished second and fifth, respectively, but it was three-time champion Jimmie Johnson who proved he was primed for defending his title after coming from three laps down to finish 13th and maintain second-place in the point standings, two markers ahead of his teammate Jeff Gordon and 197 points behind leader Tony Stewart.

If Johnson was nervous when a spark plug failed on Lap 105, he didn’t show it. Johnson stayed as calm behind the wheel as if he was lounging poolside with a cold one in his hand. Johnson’s composure remained intact as he carefully described the power draining from the No. 48 Chevrolet after he had led 22 laps early in the race.

Methodically, the team ran down the checklist of gremlins to address. After multiple pit stops, Johnson fell to 38th, three laps off the lead, on Lap 111 of 200. But he never wavered. Even as crew chief Chad Knaus became testy as NASCAR threatened to black-flag his driver for running under the minimum speed limit, Johnson never lost sight of the finish.

And luck was on Johnson’s side as multiple cautions allowed him to continue to pit for adjustments and regain laps through the free-pass rule. After the 10th caution on Lap 180, which was triggered when David Ragan ran into Bobby Labonte, Johnson was mired at 29th but on the lead lap. It took just 10 laps for him to climb 16 positions. Had Johnson not slipped into the Turn 2 wall with five laps to go, he believes he would have posted his 15th top 10 of the season.

Once again, Johnson salvaged what could have been a disastrous finish. Despite finishing 13th, he said his team’s effort “means a lot” to him.

“When we leave here and the dust settles, there’s a lot to be proud of,” Johnson said. “What I was hoping to see from the No. 48 team is coming around right now. This is what we need going into the Chase.

“I think we are going in the right direction and it shows to me what my team is capable of and I know what I’m capable of going into the Chase. Just a lot of fight in this race team. I’m very proud of them.”

Game changer

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford’s decision to take four tires on the last pit stop after the No. 11 Toyota slipped back on two tires made the difference Monday at Pocono Raceway.

Even when he was in sixth place with 15 laps to go, Hamlin predicted that he would win his third Pocono race. Sure enough, Hamlin passed race leader Clint Bowyer with 10 laps remaining and was then able to extend his lead as the cars behind him jockeyed for position.

Certainly, without a Hendrick-powered car running among the top five at the time, Hamlin knew he had an opportunity to display the gains Joe Gibbs Racing has made in the last six races.

“This is what we didn’t get to show last week at the Brickyard, what we didn’t get to show the first lap here in the summer race in June,” Hamlin said. “I think our race team has been really good the last couple months. I feel like we’ve been the closest car to Hendricks.

“I feel like we’re the best car other than the Hendrick cars. We’ve slowly but surely been working on it in the race shop and on pit road. We’ve been getting there slowly but surely.”

Hamlin’s first victory of the season broke a 50-race winless streak and enabled him to swap positions in the point standings with Carl Edwards again, to take over fifth place. He is currently 475 points out of first place and 251 points within the Chase Zone.

Say what?

Race winner Denny Hamlin made no excuses for dumping David Reutimann on Lap 174 when the No. 00 was running eighth. Hamlin, on fresh tires, obviously wanted the position.

“I was driving over my head, I had so many emotions,” Hamlin said in the postrace broadcast. “The race was halfway on my mind with the family stuff that’s going on … I tried to push him hoping he would straighten up. I kept foot in it and spun him out and ended up hurtin his Chase chances. I hate that.

Reutimann entered Pocono 13th in the point standings, just 68 points outside the top 12. If Reutimann was dreading Watkins Glen before Pocono, now that he’s dropped to 16th in the standings, 121 points out of the Chase, the No. 00 Toyota is in a world of hurt.

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