AVONDALE, Ariz. — When last week's fluke accident cost Jimmie Johnson a huge chunk of his Sprint Cup points lead, he knew there was no more room for error in his bid to win a NASCAR-record fourth consecutive season championship.
But when it came time to plot a strategy for the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, playing it safe was never an option.
Johnson cruised to a dominating victory Sunday that moved him to the edge of history, winning the fourth race of this Chase for the Championship in what one rival considered a "statement" showing.
"I guess in the end, it could have been a statement that we're sending," he said. "I'm very proud of the fact we looked each other in the eyes, knew what we had to do, and delivered."
Johnson wrecked on the third lap last week at Texas and sat in his disabled car as his crew did a total rebuild. He limped to a 38th-place finish that sliced his points lead to 73 over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin.
His win at Phoenix — Johnson's fourth in the past five races here, and seventh victory of the season — stretched his lead to 108 points over Martin going into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson needs to finish 25th or better to grab a spot in the record books.
"We gave it everything we had," said Martin, who finished fourth.
Martin has gained 108 points on Johnson nine times in 265 races, including last weekend at Texas. He did it once at Homestead, in 2005.
He's not counting on catching Johnson this year, and the sentimental favorite for the title will likely finish second for a fifth time.
He's the only driver still in real mathematical contention to catch Johnson. Fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon, in third, will be eliminated as soon as Johnson starts next week.
Despite the reality of his position, Martin refused to concede to Johnson. "We've still got to go to Homestead and run like this again, because we still have heat behind us, Jeff Gordon, especially," Martin said.
Jeff Burton was second Sunday and followed by Denny Hamlin, Martin and pole-sitter Martin Truex.
Nobody was surprised to see Johnson win, viewing Texas as a hiccup.
"Anytime that Jimmie is down is not usually because of performance, it's usually because of an incident like last week," Hamlin said. "There was no doubt in my mind they were going to come this week and make a statement.
"Obviously leading all the laps, pretty much (238 of them), and winning the race sends a statement out there that he is the best, that they're not going to be denied this year."
Though Johnson's team initially reacted as if the title had been locked up, the No. 48 crew settled down.
Johnson admitted the win gave him a sense of relief after "the carpet was jerked out from underneath our feet" at Texas, but it also provided a lesson in not looking too far ahead.
"When I go home tonight, I'm going to be (mentally) driving laps, what I think I need to do in qualifying trim so I can put my best effort in on Friday. Same thing for race practice on Saturday, and go racing Sunday."
Call for calm: Brad Keselowski met with top NASCAR officials for about 20 minutes before Sunday's race at Phoenix, where the young driver had yet another run-in with Denny Hamlin the day before in a Nationwide race. Contact between them has led to five Hamlin wrecks dating to last season, including Saturday. Hamlin has vowed revenge in next week's Nationwide finale, pretty much promising to wreck Keselowski. After the meeting, that included chairman Brian France, Keselowski said he doesn't plan to talk to Hamlin: "I'm quite satisfied with my own role in the sport as it is with the other drivers. So I don't feel the need to engage that situation."
Hendrick denies Patrick deal: Rick Hendrick said he does not have a deal to bring IndyCar star Danica Patrick to NASCAR, and there's no certainty she'll even drive stock cars in 2010. "I just think that they are not even close to making a decision on whether to even do it this year or next year," Hendrick said of Patrick and her reps at IMG. Patrick is reportedly nearing a deal for a limited Nationwide slate with JR Motorsports, the team owned by both Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.