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IT'S A REAL PENNANT RACE
LARS ANDERSON
October 17, 2011
NASCAR has its tightest Chase ever, but with a dominant victory at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team made it clear that they're again bringing the heat—and with six races remaining in this high-octane fall classic, Mr. Five-Time is gunning for Cup No. 6
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October 17, 2011

It's A Real Pennant Race

NASCAR has its tightest Chase ever, but with a dominant victory at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team made it clear that they're again bringing the heat—and with six races remaining in this high-octane fall classic, Mr. Five-Time is gunning for Cup No. 6

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Kenseth, on four new tires from the previous stop, passed Johnson for the lead on Lap 41. Johnson's older left-side tires were fading and not gripping the track as well as Kenseth's. "You're doing awesome, buddy," Knaus said over the radio, trying to encourage Johnson, who was losing ground to the leader.

SUNDAY: 2:03 P.M. THE PIT PLAY

Knaus's earlier pit call paid off. Johnson, in third place behind Kenseth and non-Chaser Biffle, dived into the pits under the green flag and was given four fresh tires. He was now on the same four-tire pit sequence as every other driver—and no longer buried in traffic. Once back on the track, he quickly vaulted past Kenseth and Biffle to retake the lead on Lap 71. "You are flying," Knaus said.

SUNDAY: 3:20 P.M. CRUISING

Johnson held an 11-second lead over Tony Stewart—a country mile in NASCAR—with 67 laps left. Compared with the rest of the field, this was the fastest car that Johnson had driven in two years.

SUNDAY: 4:18 P.M. TWO TO GO

With two laps left in the race, Gordon blew an engine, prompting the yellow flag to wave. This set up a green-white-checkered finish, a two-lap dash to Victory Lane. Johnson held the lead; Kasey Kahne, who had newer tires, was in second. But Kahne's advantage in rubber didn't matter: Johnson pulled away on the restart the same way he'd been toying with the other 42 drivers all day. He won by more than half a second in what was one of the most dominating race performances of his career. As he streaked across the finish line after leading 197 of the 272 laps, Johnson screamed over the radio, "Let's drink some champagne!"

SUNDAY: 6:09 P.M. SOAKING IT IN

The sun was pink over Kansas Speedway as Johnson lounged outside his motor coach. With the top of his driver's suit unzipped, he cracked open a Bud Light and toasted his win with friends. Then Carl Edwards, dressed in a black T-shirt and shorts, approached. "Damn, you were fast today," Edwards said. "This is getting very interesting, because you tore it up."

Yes, he did. Johnson snapped a 21-race winless streak—the longest of his career—and now he's third in the standings, trailing Edwards, who finished fifth, by four points. (Harvick is second, three points ahead.) What was the secret to Johnson's win? "The changes we made to the car during the weekend meant everything," he said. "I think my stress level is close to an alltime high. This was a great step forward, but we have to keep it going."

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