AVONDALE, Ariz. — They popped the champagne in Victory Lane and celebrated as if Jimmie Johnson had just won another championship.
Almost. But not quite there.
Johnson moved inches closer to his record-tying third straight NASCAR title Sunday, trouncing the field at Phoenix International Raceway in the Checker O'Reilly 500 to deliver a near-knockout punch to Carl Edwards' championship hopes.
"I can't tell you how tough the last week has been," Johnson said, one week after he finished 15th — and one lap down — at Texas. "This is what I've worked my whole life for. … A lot of hard work goes into this. … I was going for maximum points, and I got it."
Johnson needs to finish 36th or better — 37th if he leads at least one lap — next week in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to join Cale Yarborough (1976-78) as the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three straight titles.
"He's doing something pretty special," said 2004 champion Kurt Busch, who finished second. "It's just tough to beat."
Johnson came into Phoenix on the ropes — reeling, almost — after the subpar 15th-place finish at Texas allowed Edwards to take a sizable bite out of the points lead.
Johnson rebounded to win the pole at Phoenix but struggled through Saturday's final practice to send his stress-level through the roof.
As Chad Knaus worked late into the night on a new setup and strategy, Johnson harassed him with phone calls that didn't stop until the crew chief ordered the driver to leave him alone.
"The first thing, the garage opens at 8:01, and he calls me right away," Knaus said. "I was like, 'Dude, leave me alone. I need to go to work.' I told him to go back to sleep, 'you're bothering me.' "
Whatever changes they made worked: Johnson led a race-high 217 of the 313 laps to stretch his lead in the standings from 106 points to an almost insurmountable 141.
"We've got a great points lead," Johnson said. "We'll go down to Homestead and try to wrap this baby up."
The win was his third straight at Phoenix and had Edwards on the edge of conceding after his own fourth-place finish.
"If he would have some terrible luck in Homestead, we still have a chance," Edwards said. "We did the best we could, but it's too big of a spread right now. It's possible. Not probable, but possible."
No, it's not. Not with the way Johnson is running.
Johnson has made a mockery of the Chase for the Championship format, reeling off 14 wins in the 49 races since NASCAR adopted the format in 2004. He contended for the title in 2004 and 2005 only to come up just short both seasons.
He's on the verge of joining Yarborough, David Pearson, Lee Petty and Darrel Waltrip as a three-time champion. Jeff Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, has four titles, and Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty won a NASCAR-record seven.
Johnson has done it in dominating fashion. He has finished in the top 10 in seven Chase races, and his lowest finish was the 15th last week at Texas.
But he still had a sizable lead over Edwards and could have clinched Sunday.
So his throng of friends from his hometown of El Cajon, Calif., made the trip to Phoenix and crowded his pit box to watch him tick off the laps. When he passed Jamie McMurray on a late restart, his friends — which included professional baseball players Brian and Marcus Giles — pumped their fists in celebration.
Johnson started from the pole but gave way to McMurray on the first lap. He didn't take the lead until Lap 81, but he was never challenged from there.
McMurray briefly moved out front again after a round of late pit stops, but Johnson blew past him in Turn 2 of a restart and was hardly challenged again. Kurt Busch made a brief run at him in the closing laps but graciously settled for second and praised Johnson for his skillful late pass.
"I was third and the way that he went high, went low, and he was in the lead before you could snap your fingers," Busch said. "It was unbelievable to watch that type of display, and it's something pretty special."
McMurray was third, followed by Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and David Ragan.
With the win, cash-strapped General Motors wrapped up its 32nd NASCAR manufacturer's championship.