FONTANA, Calif. – Is it too soon to cue the fat lady?
Maybe so, but Jimmie Johnson’s dominating performance and victory in Sunday’s Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway sure seemed like the beginning of the end of his trek to a NASCAR-record fourth consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship.
Even his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, sounded a lot like a guy ready to concede after Johnson passed him for the lead and pulled away for the win.
“What else can you say? They are the best out there. They’ve won the last three championships,” Gordon said. “They’re going to be hard to beat for this one.
“Really, unless they make a mistake, I don’t see how they lose it.”
Although, technically, Johnson only became the series points leader with his victory Sunday, there has been an aura of inevitability and invincibility growing around his No. 48 team. It seemed to take hold following his win at Dover, Del., two weeks ago when he led 271 of 400 laps.
Johnson at times on Sunday held leads of as much as eight seconds over his nearest competitors. The only thing preventing him from running away with the win was a slew of late-race cautions that kept bunching up the field.
Gordon took advantage of one and passed Johnson for the lead on Lap 239 only to see Johnson run him down and move back out front five laps later.
An eight-car wreck and the nearly 22-minute red flag needed to clean up debris only seemed to delay the inevitable as Johnson made short work of Gordon on the final restart with three laps remaining.
“The tough part at the end of the race was the restarts. It’s tough to control your destiny on a restart," said Johnson.
“Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.”
Confronted with Gordon’s comments after the race, Johnson elected not to bite.
“I mean, we love where we’re at. We love the fact that we’re in the points lead,” he said. “But I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to think about those things.
“If we are in the hunt come Homestead, come Phoenix, it’s going to be the thoughts, the emotions, all of that is going to be so heavy on all of our shoulders that it’s going to be a tough grind.”
And Johnson knows how quickly fortunes can change.
“Last week, if you had a chance to speak to us after the race (during which Johnson struggled but managed to finish ninth), we were all ready to jump off a cliff,” he said.
“You know, this week, we’re on top of the world.”
One contender who appeared to have a car capable of keeping of with Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was taken out of contention for the win – and perhaps the championship.
Shortly after passing the start/finish line on Lap 190, Juan Pablo Montoya got a push from behind by Johnson. The push propelled Montoya into Hamlin – the leader – as he moved down in an apparent effort to block Montoya’s charge.
Hamlin spun and eventually crashed into the pit road wall and was forced to the garage.
“I thought I was clear and I misjudged it,” Hamlin said. “I got to apologize to my team. They deserve better than that. They got me out front. It was a bad mistake.”
Hamlin has fallen 219 points behind Johnson with six races remaining, but there are others still in the hunt, including Mark Martin who now trails Johnson by 12 points.
Montoya is third (58 points behind Johnson), Tony Stewart fourth (84 back) and Gordon is fifth (105 back).
“It’s incredible,” Montoya said. “We have four (top-five finishes) in a row and I’ve been losing points to the leader.
“It would be nice if we can get a freaking win soon and we can move on.”