September 8, 2007
RICHMOND, Va. (cbssportsline.com/AP) -- Jimmie Johnson locked up his spot as the favorite for the Nextel Cup title, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was locked out of NASCAR's showcase event.
Johnson easily raced to his series-best sixth victory of the season, winning Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway to shore up the top seed in the Chase for the championship. The defending Nextel Cup champion will start the 10-race title hunt on top of the standings and with the momentum of two consecutive wins to help him hold off 11 other challengers.
But NASCAR's most popular driver won't be one of them.
Earnhardt will watch the Chase from the sidelines for the second time in three years, failing to race his way into the event. He ran in the top three late in the race, but his fifth motor failure with just a few laps to go sealed his fate.
He finished 30th, and was clearly dejected as he shared a brief hug with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. The two are leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the season and will join Hendrick Motorsports.
"We've run good every week. We just can't finish races," Earnhardt said. "We love racing. We'll be all right. This is disappointing, these dang motors."
Earnhardt started the race as the only driver mathematically eligible to race into the Chase, but the odds were stacked against him. Kevin Harvick, the driver on the bubble, had to finish 33rd or worse, combined with a flawless Earnhardt run, for Junior to make it.
Harvick had two dicey moments -- including a side-trip through the grass to avoid nemesis Juan Pablo Montoya's spinning car - but he recovered to coast to a seventh-place finish to end any suspense.
"I saw a lot of cars and wrecks and a lot of things that happened and I knew it was pretty close," Harvick said. "I saw (Earnhardt) running third, and in my head I knew where we were and kind of turned it up a little bit."
This "regular-season" finale has been full of excitement since NASCAR implemented the Chase for the championship in 2004. It sent several bubble drivers into the race needing miracles to keep their title hopes intact.
But NASCAR changed the format this year, widening the Chase field from 10 to 12 drivers and implementing a seeding system that awarded 10 bonus points for every regular-season victory. It diluted the drama of this particular race and made it almost impossible for Earnhardt to race his way in.
He knew it long before he arrived in Richmond, and he seemed almost resigned to his fate from the start. It means Earnhardt won't win a championship with DEI, his late father's company.
Although he won two Busch Series championships while his father was still alive, he's never been higher than third in the Cup standings.
Earnhardt was solid at times this season, but the motor failures derailed his efforts.
"We deserved to be in the Chase," he said. "We ran top-five almost every week."
Although the drama was gone, the new format put a premium on wins and drivers went hard for them every week. Although Jeff Gordon dominated the standings all season long, his points lead is gone because Johnson, his teammate, won two more races than he did.
Johnson surged into the top seed by winning last week in California and Saturday night in Richmond to give him a season sweep on the Virginia short track. He said that momentum will be key to winning a second championship.
"Momentum means a lot, it really does," he said. "We've seen that time and time again with different race teams. We're happy to be hitting our stride now and we had a great 26. Now it's about these last 10 and we'll see what we can do."
Gordon, the four-time series champion, will be seeded second -- just 20 points behind Johnson.
Tony Stewart, the two-time series champion, will be 30 points back in third. He missed the Chase last season.
"After missing it last year, we are obviously excited to be back in," Stewart said. "We never in our wildest dreams thought we would miss it last year, so we're happy to be back in the Chase.
Carl Edwards is seeded fourth, followed by Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
"Jimmie Johnson's just on a tear right now and he's going to be tough to catch," said Busch, winner of the inaugural 2004 Chase. "Johnson is unbelievable right now, Gordon, you can just see that those two have a distinct advantage right now."
Truex and Bowyer are first-time Chase participants, and Bowyer is the only driver in the showcase without a win. He'll be 60 points behind Johnson when the series starts next Sunday in New Hampshire.
Edwards' hot streak came to an end midway through the race when a part in his motor broke. He wound up 42nd, ending his streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes, but said he's in good shape for the Chase.
"Hopefully, we can use this as a little collateral for some good luck for later in the Chase," he said. "Hopefully, this is the bad luck now that we don't have in the next 10 races. This team is going to be very strong."
Driver Points Deficit
1. Jimmie Johnson 5,060 ---
2. Jeff Gordon 5,040 -20
3. Tony Stewart 5,030 -30
4. Kurt Busch 5,020 -40
4. Carl Edwards 5,020 -40
6. Jeff Burton 5,010 -50
6. Kyle Busch 5,010 -50
6. Denny Hamlin 5,010 -50
6. Kevin Harvick 5,010 -50
6. Matt Kenseth 5,010 -50
6. Martin Truex Jr. 5,010 -50
12. Clint Bowyer 5,000 -60
The Associated Press News Service