HAMPTON, Ga. - It doesn't matter to Jimmie Johnson that the Chase for the Championship, stock car racing's playoffs, is six months away. He's thinking - and racing - at a championship level now.
Johnson's Lowe's Chevrolet led 134 laps Sunday in the Kobalt Tools 500, but the last three were the most-dramatic at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Johnson squeezed past Tony Stewart following a side-by-side battle that lasted nearly three miles, then he pulled away for a 100-yard victory.
Johnson got beside Stewart with four laps to go in the third and fourth turns, but Stewart held off the challenge. He tried the same pass the next time around the 1.54-mile speedway, but this time he finally got ahead as the two sped off the second turn. Stewart tried to keep the nose of his Chevrolet beside Johnson, but Johnson pinched him into the outside wall, killing Stewart's momentum and allowing Johnson to finally pull away for his second win in as many races.
"We're thinking championship already," Johnson said. "That's really the mode. ... You want to make it about points and being in the top 12 (to qualify for the Chase in September). We're doing that right now."
Johnson finished 38th at the season-opening Daytona 500, but he has rallied to finish third, first and first in his next three starts.
Johnson and Stewart had the best cars. They combined to lead 255 of 325 laps. It was fitting it was a two-car race at the end.
"He was faster than us right there," Stewart said after finishing second. "I just wish he would have given me room to race him for it. But that's racing. That's why everybody loves coming here. That's why it's such a great deal to going from a race like last week (where there were tire issues that led to several accidents) to races like we have here. I wish we could have won, obviously, but at least we gained a lot of points."
Johnson was so dominant he once led by more than a half mile. Stewart took control in the second half of the race, but a series of late cautions for Dave Blaney's blown engine and debris allowed Johnson to get the adjustments he needed on pit road for the stretch run. He was third during a final re-start with 12 laps to go, and his charge didn't stop until he was in Victory Lane.
"We did the right things with the race car," Johnson said. "We were hooked up for the short run. We were real good on the long runs, but Chad (Knaus, his crew chief) got me the right adjustment there (with 15 laps remaining). At the end, we were spot-on."
Matt Kenseth was a distant third, followed by Jeff Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Ryan Newman started on the pole, but he dropped to 43rd before the race after his team changed an engine Saturday. That promoted Johnson from third to first on the starting grid. From there, he led the first 36 laps, stretching out to a half-mile lead before the race was slowed for a caution for debris.
Johnson now is fourth in the rankings, and that easily can improve next week.
"After you win a championship, that's what you focus on and that's what you want to do," Johnson said. "We're off to a good start."
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUNDAY'S TOP 10
1. J. Johnson - Chevy
2. T. Stewart - Chevy
3. Matt Kenseth - Ford
4. Jeff Burton - Chevy
5. J.P. Montoya - Dodge
6. C. Bowyer - Chevy
7. C. Edwards - Ford
8. M. Truex Jr. - Chevy
9. R. Sorenson - Dodge
10. Mark Martin - Chevy
What: Food City 500
Where: Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway
When: 1:30 p.m., Sunday
TV: FOX-Ch. 54
Defending champion: Kurt Busch, left