Johnson picks up pace for playoffs

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FONTANA, Calif. - If Jimmie Johnson was looking for momentum as he gets ready for stock car racing's playoffs, he found it at the California Speedway on Sunday night.

Johnson's team had a strategy to survive the daylight portion of the Sharp AQUOS 500, then spring into action once the sun dropped below the third turn wall. In the process, his team seemed to find some lost confidence.

He was second in the point standings following his victory May 6 at Richmond. A mid-summer swoon started soon after, dropping him as far back as ninth in the rankings a month ago. But finishes of fifth, third, third, 21st and first in the past five races locked him into the Chase for the Championship, turning concern into confidence as the playoffs approach.

"Yeah, I certainly was concerned," Johnson said after leading the final 32 laps Sunday to beat Carl Edwards by 150 yards. "We had great race cars and had bad luck and lost a lot of ground. And it's easy to have a bad race car and just not run well the following week. So if you get four or five bad races in a row, you can lose a lot of ground, and that's where I was nervous.

"But we've got that all turned around now and looking good."

Despite being sixth in the standings, Johnson will start the Chase as the top-seeded driver. NASCAR's unique format ranks the top-12 drivers by their number of victories in the first 26 races. All 12 drivers will start with 5,000 points, and each previous win will be worth an additional 10 points. Johnson will start the Chase on Sept. 16 with at least 5,050 points.

While Johnson is gaining momentum as the playoffs start, points leader Jeff Gordon is moving in the other direction. He won four of the first 14 races, but he's winless since. More important, his past three finishes have been 27th, 19th and 22nd.

But he's not worried.

"None of these races really mean a whole lot," Gordon said. "And so we'd like to be running better and be out there getting bonus points, but this team is going to come with a whole different focus and attitude when we get to New Hampshire (to start the Chase)."

Ten drivers are clinched into the playoffs, and three are left fighting for the final two positions.

Johnson, Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are in; Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are left to fight for the scraps at Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. Kurt Busch needs to finish 32nd or better to make the cut; Harvick needs to finish 38th or better.

Most of the Chase contenders ran well at California. Edwards finished second, while Kyle Busch was third, Burton was fourth, Earnhardt was fifth, Truex Jr. was sixth, Kenseth was seventh, Brian Vickers was eighth, Kurt Busch was ninth and Kasey Kahne was 10th.

Now that Johnson's back in the fast lane, Gordon said a good finish at Richmond could jump-start his playoff hopes.

"We've still gone one race left, Richmond, and maybe we can get something going there," Gordon said."But we'll all find out when we get down to that final race what 10 points means. We've gone on some streaks before when 10 points won't mean anything. But everybody is going to step up for those final 10 and you want every point you can get."

And even more momentum.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

CHASE FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS


(Top 12 qualify for Chase)

* Qualified for Chase

DRIVER POINTS
1. Jeff Gordon 3,679*
2. Tony Stewart 3,362*
3. Denny Hamlin 3,335*
4. Carl Edwards 3,330*
5. Matt Kenseth 3,309*
6. Jimmie Johnson 3,249*
7. Jeff Burton 3,219*
8. Kyle Busch 3,199*
9. Clint Bowyer 3,047*
10. Martin Truex Jr. 3,042*
11. Kurt Busch 3,022
12. Kevin Harvick 3,009
13. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2,881
14. Ryan Newman 2,755
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