LONG POND, Pa. — Jimmie Johnson walked into the media center holding his daughter’s hand, his pregnant wife right behind them. Their second child is due in September, right around the time of the final race before the Chase field is set.
With an automatic berth in NASCAR’s playoffs secured, Johnson has permission to skip the race for the big birth.
“If Chani goes into labor early, I don’t have to worry about Richmond,” Johnson said.
A week after a late penalty denied his chance at a win, Johnson dominated Sunday at Pocono Raceway, leading 128 of 160 laps for his third victory of the season.
“Jimmie’s switched on right now,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “He’s as good or better as I’ve ever seen him.”
High praise for the five-time champion.
Even during his championship run, Johnson rarely cruised like he did on the 2½-mile triangle track.
The Sprint Cup points leader, Johnson pulled away on both of the last two restarts over the final 10 laps to pull into Victory Lane at Pocono for the first time since he swept both races in 2004.
Johnson was never seriously challenged a week after his run at a possible win at Dover International Speedway was taken away by a penalty off a restart. NASCAR penalized him for jumping leader Juan Pablo Montoya off the restart with 19 laps left and he finished 17th.
It was a rare misstep for Johnson, but he rebounded just fine at Pocono.
Johnson briefly flirted with the idea of pulling some sort of restart stunt to send a message to NASCAR. He just couldn’t bring himself to try and get one over on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I wanted to prove a point and show everyone what could happen in that restart zone,” Johnson said.
There was no need. The No. 48 Chevrolet was that dialed in.
He pretty much only lost the lead because of pit stop cycles.
After only one caution in the first 125 laps, they came in bunches over the last 35. Johnson held off Earnhardt with nine laps left and pulled away one more time with four to go.
“He’s one of the best drivers this sport has ever seen,” Earnhardt said. “Chad Knaus is probably one of the smartest crew chiefs the sport has ever seen.”
Johnson also won the Daytona 500 and at Martinsville Speedway this season. His 63rd career Cup victory helped stretch his points lead to 51 over Carl Edwards.
Johnson won from the pole after rain washed out qualifying Friday.
Odds are, Johnson won’t really skip a race, especially with the due date in mid-September. But if he has that top seed locked up and is needed in a pinch, he’ll put family first.
“That’s what I’m working so hard for,” Johnson said.
Greg Biffle was second and Earnhardt. Dover winner Tony Stewart was fourth, followed by fellow Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Newman.
“I really didn’t have anything for Jimmie,” Biffle said. “Jimmie was in a league of his own.”
Earnhardt would love a repeat of last season when he was in contention at Pocono before settling for eighth, then won the next week at Michigan International Speedway. He wasn’t won since – and Michigan is on deck.
“We want to get a win, man,” Earnhardt said. “I can see it right there in front of me. I really thought we got close.”
Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano rounded out the top 10.
Stewart and Newman continued a three-week resurgence for SHR, though Danica Patrick was 29th. Stewart jumped three spots to 13th in the standings and still has the No. 1 wild-card spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The final race before the 12-driver field is set is Sept. 7.
“It’s not just one team, the whole organization is gaining momentum,” Stewart said.
Johnson had his ninth top-10 finish of 2013 and has now won at least three races in 11 of his 12 full-time seasons. His 128 laps led were the most of his career at Pocono – amazing since the race was shortened from 200 laps to 160 last season.
Consider, in Johnson’s first Pocono win in 2004, it was only the ninth of his career and he had yet to win a championship.
For all his success, Johnson never takes it for granted.
“There are no guarantees we’ll win again, there really aren’t,” he said. “The sport moves so fast.”
At Pocono, the No. 48 led the way.