WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Jimmie Johnson is back in his usual perch — atop the Sprint Cup standings and smiling.
Teammate Jeff Gordon? Not so happy.
Running near the front all day Sunday in the Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International, Johnson maneuvered his way back after falling out of the top 10 two-thirds through the 90-lap race and finished right where he started — third.
He might not have won, but Johnson still had something to smile about. His finish left him one point ahead of Greg Biffle in the standings as teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. faltered late.
"I'm excited to be leading the points," Johnson said. "Whoever the team is, I really believe that they get some much-needed experience with the pressure of the points lead late in the season. It's just different than at any point in time. I look forward to the pressure on my team and myself."
The five-time Cup champion entered Sunday's race in fourth place, eight points behind Earnhardt.
Johnson now holds a one-point advantage over Greg Biffle, who finished sixth. Earnhardt fell back to fourth in the standings after a late spin and finished 28th. He had been as high as seventh two-thirds of the way through the race won by Marcos Ambrose.
"I just got in the corner and made a mistake and that was pretty much all there was to it," Earnhardt said. "I was just overdriving the car."
The top 10 in the points and two wild card teams qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, NASCAR's version of a postseason that's staged over the final 10 races of the year. Gordon held one wild card after his win last week at Pocono and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne the other on the strength of his two wins.
Ryan Newman and Gordon started Sunday's race tied with 611 points apiece, and the two battled late in the race. They were neck and neck at lap 84 before Newman managed to slip by Gordon, who finished 21st after a spin on the oil-spattered track. Newman finished 11th to regain the wild card spot he lost last week.
"It was a rough day," said Gordon, who ran as high as fourth but had handling issues until his final pit stop. "We can't control what other people do. We can only control what we do. We're trying to go out there and race as hard as we can and get the best finishes we can."
Gordon was one of the victims of a track covered in oil from Bobby Labonte's No. 47, and he was not happy.
"I was having a blast," Gordon said. "To work that hard all day long, come all the way from way back and have it taken away because they don't want to throw a caution, it's pretty disappointing. It's just unfortunate that that gets taken away from you because NASCAR doesn't want to end the race under yellow (caution).
"I understand. You want to keep it entertaining and give the winner a shot at it, but there are a lot of other things going on out there, too. I think they completely disregarded that. Hey, it's over now. We'll move on."
Kyle Busch, who had the race in hand when he spun out in the oil while leading to start the final lap, recovered to finish seventh and also moved four points past Gordon and trails Newman by just six with four races left until the Chase. All three drivers have one victory, as do Ambrose and Joey Logano, who are further back and need another win to have a chance.
Ambrose outdueled Brad Keselowski in a fender-banging, oil-splashed, last-lap duel to win it and, unlike Gordon, was elated.
"Big shout out to NASCAR," Ambrose said. "A lot of people (were) saying, 'Should they have thrown a caution or not?' No one wants to see these races finish under caution, bunched back up in these two-by-twos. We had the three fastest cars duking it out for the win. That's the way it should be."
ROAD RACE ACE KESELOWSKI: Brad Keselowski finished second Sunday in his No. 2 Dodge to Marcos Ambrose for the second straight year on the road course at Watkins Glen International, an impressive showing against one of the best road racers around.
Keselowski also finished second on Saturday to Carl Edwards in the Nationwide race at The Glen, with both races not decided until the final turn.
Say hello to the next road race ace in NASCAR, and listen to one of the best.
"I got to take a second here to say Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are two of the best road racers I've been around," Ambrose said. "They're amazing drivers. The 2 car, they've been really great here the last couple years. They're a force to be reckoned with, no doubt."
Paul Wolfe, crew chief for the No. 2, isn't surprised.
"Brad has proven that he can run a great pace on road courses," Wolfe said. "Today was no different. We led a bunch of laps and we're there at the end to have a shot at the win. That's all you can ask for as a crew chief. I think that we've shown over the last few weeks that we've put ourselves in position to win, and that's what we're here to do."
Keselowski has his eyes focused on the bigger picture — winning the Sprint Cup title — and is tied for the series lead with three wins with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.
"You have to understand there's a part of me that's so thrilled to be competitive on a road course," Keselowski said. "There's just a large part of me that's tickled to run that well because I'm not supposed to. The last year and a half we've been very strong.
"I'm proud of the last two days I had. I feel like Jimmie Johnson with the cars I've had on road courses of late. Trying to keep perspective how far we've come as a team."
ALWAYS ON THE ROAD: Too bad NASCAR can't clone Tony Stewart.
Although Stewart spun out in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International while running second with just under 20 laps left in the 90-lap race and finished 19th, ending his chance for a sixth win at the storied road course, it was another day of racing and it doesn't get any better than that for Smoke.
While other drivers were relaxing in the days leading up the Finger Lakes 355 on Sunday, Stewart was racing instead — twice at nearby tracks.
"A lot of people went on vacation their last week, I went racing five nights in a row," Stewart said. "That is just kind of what I'm into and my thing. I feel like the more time I spend in a race car, the better it's making me as a driver."
Rest and time away from the track? Not in his world. And Stewart's sponsors benefit from his time racing sprint cars as much as he does. They only pay for sponsorship space on his Sprint Cup car. As a courtesy, Stewart throws in space on his sprint car free of cost.
"They don't finance the sprint car program," Stewart said. "All those sponsors that we have we put them on the car just as a thank-you, and it's kind of those things where we try to under-promise and over-deliver with them."
SPARK PLUGS: Richard Petty said Sunday after his driver, Marcos Ambrose, won at Watkins Glen that his company would have to renegotiate with Ford after the season. "I seen some of the Ford people there today. I told them, 'Me and Marcos won the race.' I had the contract in my pocket. I was going to let them sign it right there. I don't think it went over too good." ... Ambrose's second victory at Watkins Glen on Sunday was just his second in 141 Cup races. ... Denny Hamlin blew an engine in his No. 11 Toyota and finished 34th.