FONTANA, Calif. — Jimmie Johnson is back in control of NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
The three-time defending Sprint Cup champion pulled away from Jeff Gordon after a restart with three laps left to win the Pepsi 500 on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway and take the points lead from Mark Martin with his fifth victory of the year.
The win was Johnson's fourth at the 2-mile oval. The native Californian took his time drinking in the moment, doing burnouts and goofing off on 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," said Johnson, who started 18 points behind Martin, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, but vaulted 12 ahead.
He won so effortlessly all Gordon could do was shrug. "What else can you say? They're the best out there," said Gordon, also Johnson's teammate. "… Really, unless they make a mistake, I don't see how they lose it."
Johnson, who led 126 of 250 laps, dominated the second half of the race but had to sweat out a series of double-file restarts after a number of collisions, including an eight-car pileup that forced a 22-minute red flag with six laps left.
Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet roared away from Gordon and he took 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 Montoya was third, his fourth straight top-five finish. All that consistency, however, hasn't helped him make up any ground.
"We have four or five in a row, and I've been losing points to the leader," said Montoya, who trails by 58 points.
"There was a time when we could go out front, but we were right there," said Martin, who finished fourth.
Tony Stewart rallied from a pit-road speed penalty for fifth.
While Johnson surged with six races left, 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 and drove his Toyota to the garage. He attempted to get back on the track but was black-flagged for not reaching minimum speed. He finished 37th.
Kahne and Biffle didn't fare much better. After a debris caution bunched the field for another restart, Kahne and Biffle collided with about 15 laps to go. 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 last week at Kansas, started 20th but steadily moved into the top 10 before being penalized for going too fast exiting the pits, sending him a lap down. Stewart apologized over the radio to crew chief Darian Grubb before scrambling to fifth.
Johnson is hardly ready to declare himself the favorite to capture a record fourth straight title, not even after his 16th career Chase win.
"Today we did a good job of it, but there are still six more times to stub our toes," he said. "So we'll have to stay on top of things and do what we've been able to do in the past once again."