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Johnson wins at RIR, leads points as Chase looms

Johnson wins at RIR, leads points as Chase looms

RICHMOND, Va. - If Jimmie Johnson can run the next 10 races like he has the last two, then its going to be another fun trip to the New York City awards banquet in December for the defending NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion.

Johnson notched his sixth victory of the season Saturday night by winning at Richmond and securing the top seed in the 10-race “Chase for the Championship” that begins this weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway.

“It's a great feeling to be able to go into the Chase leading the points," said Johnson, who led four times for 104 laps Saturday night, marking the seventh time in his career he has swept both races at a track in a single season. "That's something you obviously want to do, not only from the points standpoint but from a psychological standpoint it's a benefit for sure.

“The guys have done a great job and worked very hard and upheld the standard of this team throughout the summer months and had some very good race cars.”

After a quiet July and August, Johnson said last week’s victory at California followed by Friday’s pole and Saturday’s victory at Richmond shows the Lowe’s team is peaking at the right time.

"You know, we hear a lot about how we seem to fall a little bit throughout the summertime, but this year I really don't feel we did," Johnson said. "I think that we performed better this summer than we ever had and it definitely paid dividends."

Johnson’s weekend started great. He earned his first pole of the season and 10th of his career Friday. He has won a pole in each of his first six seasons -- the longest streak among active drivers.

Johnson fell back at the start of the race of the race, but never ventured out of the top five. He worked his way back to the front and took over the lead from teammate Jeff Gordon during pit stops on lap 342. He never relinquished the lead.

Saturday’s race marked Johnson’s 29th career victory -- only 20 drivers have won more races in NASCAR history. However, it is the next 10 races that will determine Johnson’s place in the record books as he attempts to become the first driver since Gordon in 1998 to win back-to-back championships.

"This is going to be the most competitive Chase we've seen," Johnson said. "Last year's experience of how far you can really be down and out and come back, I don't think you're going to have to dominate all 10 races. It's going to be great and if someone does, that's obviously the way you want to do it.

"But 10 races are long -- you have Talladega, Martinsville, you have a lot of wild cards and action that you can't control. I just want to be strong and steady and start knocking down top-fives starting next weekend and hopefully we can accomplish what we want to at that point."

Crew chief Chad Knaus knows what it is going to take for the Lowe’s team to retain its title.

"I think the average finish that you typically had to win the championship, which has been about eighth and ninth place, it's going to shape up and you're going to have to be a sixth- to a fifth-place finisher for the final 10 races to win the championship," Knaus said.

"You never know what's going to happen. It's going to be tough. There's going to be multiple winners from Championship Chase racers in the final 10 races and it's going to be exciting."