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CUP: Johnson Finishes Third, Widens Points Lead

For nearly the entire middle third of Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 500, Jimmie Johnson looked for all the world as if he were about to add a fifth victory in his last six races at Phoenix International Raceway.

LINK> UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: Subway Fresh Fit 600

Johnson, who has utterly demoralized the competition in Phoenix in recent years, passed Juan Pablo Montoya on Lap 149 and put his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Impala out front for 113 of the next 115 laps.

But Johnson had an uncharacteristic bad restart on Lap 262 of the 375-lap race, allowing Kyle Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to power on by him and take over the lead.

From there, Busch looked a sure winner, with Johnson set to finish a distant second. But the complexion of the race changed radically when Scott Riggs hit the wall on Lap 372, bringing out the ninth and final caution of the race.

The yellow flag sent all the lead-lap cars scurrying down pit road to set up for the final two laps of green-flag racing.

Under caution, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, AJ Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt Jr. took two tires each, with Johnson coming out seventh, the first driver on four fresh tires and one spot ahead of Busch.

On the green-white-checkered restart, Johnson made a banzai move to go three-wide and move from seventh place all the way up to fourth. He would gain one more spot to finish third behind Ryan Newman and Johnson’s teammate, Gordon.

Although he did all he could to catch the leaders, third place was the best he could do on this warm night in the Sonoran Desert. It was his eighth consecutive top-five finish at the one-mile PIR oval, and his fourth in seven races this season.

Johnson took one consolation prize away from the Valley of the Sun: He widened his points lead from 14 coming into the race, to 38 over Matt Kenseth.

Asked if he thought taking four tires was the right call, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion said that indeed it was. “Totally. I was really happy to see that caution,” Johnson said. “It was an opportunity for us to make our stuff better and have a shot at the win.”

Johnson was hoping the field would have botched the green-white-checkered, but he still was pleased with his night. “If we could have had one more caution, we would have been sitting in the catbird’s seat.”

And that was that.

“Great night,” Johnson said. “Very competitive through the first two-thirds of the race. At the end we were off the 18 (Busch) a little, but all in all, a great night for the Lowe’s Impala.”

LINK> UNOFFICIAL RESULTS: Subway Fresh Fit 600

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.

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