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They're chasing Johnson (again)

FONTANA, Calif. — Jimmie Johnson is back in control of NASCAR's Chase for the championship.

The three-time defending Sprint Cup champion easily pulled away from Jeff Gordon following a restart with three laps left to win the Pepsi 500 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway for his fifth victory of the year and 45th overall.

The win was Johnson's fourth at the 2-mile oval and sent a message to the rest of the contenders he has no plans of giving up his spot atop the series easily.

The native Californian took his time drinking in the moment, doing several burnouts and goofing off along the back straightaway before NASCAR officials reminded him he needed to make a stop in Victory Lane.

"I just wanted to have a little fun with it," Johnson said.

He certainly earned it after another signature performance at a track he has turned into his own personal playground through the years. He won so effortlessly all Gordon could do afterward was shrug his shoulders.

"What else can you say? They're the best out there," Gordon said. "They've won the last three championships. They're going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don't see how they lose it."

Johnson, who led 126 laps, dominated the second half of the race but had to sweat out a series of double-file restarts following a number of late-race collisions, including an eight-car pileup that forced a 22-minute red flag with six laps remaining.

Waiting out the delay, Johnson worried he didn't have enough car to hold off Gordon. He shouldn't have. His No. 48 Chevrolet roared away from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and he quickly put the rest of the field in his rearview mirror to propel him into the points lead for the first time all season.

"That's it, that's what we want," Johnson said. "We've just got to keep chipping away."

Juan Pablo Montoya was third, his fourth straight top-five finish. All that consistency, however, hasn't helped Montoya make up any ground on Johnson.

"We have four or five in a row and I've been losing points to the leader," said Montoya, who trails Johnson by 58 points. "(You're not) going to make any points on anybody. Everybody that runs good is going to be there. You just got to make sure you don't lose any."

Mark Martin, who started the day with an 18-point lead over Johnson, was fourth and now trails Johnson by 12 points heading into Saturday night's race at Charlotte.

"There was a time when we could go out front, but we were right there," Martin said.

Tony Stewart rallied from an early pit-road speeding penalty to finish fifth.

Gordon briefly slipped by Johnson in the later stages but held out no real hope of catching him.

"He's unbelievable out there," Gordon said. "From where I was at, he ran away with it today."

Johnson, however, wasn't ready to proclaim the Chase over with six weeks left.

"We got maximum points today ... but I don't want to think about it," he said.

While Johnson surged, several Chase contenders stumbled. Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers all saw their Chase hopes likely evaporate for good.

Hamlin was leading with 60 laps to go when he collided with Montoya on a restart. Hamlin spun into a barrier at the end of pit road and quickly drove his No. 11 Toyota back to the garage. He attempted to get back on the track after missing 25 laps but was black-flagged for not reaching minimum speed.

"I made a rookie mistake," said Hamlin, who finished 37th. "I thought I was clear and I misjudged it. I got to apologize to the team. They deserve better than that."

Kahne and Biffle didn't fare much better. After a debris caution bunched up the field for another restart, Kahne and Biffle collided with about 15 laps to go. The contact started when fellow Chaser Kurt Busch wiggled (or hit the wall?) and the aftermath sent Biffle into Kahne. The two slid across the infield grass. Biffle ended up 20th while Kahne slid to 34th.

"NASCAR threw a debris caution for no debris," the frustrated Kahne said. "We had a bad race to get a caution to put a show on for the fans."

Stewart, who vaulted back into the thick of the title hunt with a win at Kansas last week, started 20th but steadily moved into the top 10 before being penalized for going too fast while exiting the pits, sending him a lap down. Stewart apologized over the radio to crew chief Darian Grubb before scrambling to fifth.

"We were pretty fortunate to get a couple of breaks when we needed them," Stewart said.

The field would need more than that to catch Johnson, who admitted that he was frustrated by an inability in recent weeks to close out races. He finished ninth last week at Kansas despite having arguably the best car on the track early on.

There were no such troubles this time. He didn't panic when a couple of slow pit stops cost him track position early, letting crew chief Chad Knauss make sure he got the car right.

Once Johnson did, he wasted little time taking control. He led by as much as eight seconds at one point before the cautions bunched up the field.

Montoya brought the car he used at Indianapolis in July, hoping to duplicate the dominance he showed at the Brickyard before giving the victory away with a careless pit road speeding penalty, a mistake that opened the door for Johnson to win.

"Just because we won the last three doesn't mean we're a shoo-in for a fourth," Johnson said.