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Jimmie Johnson wins again!

   Jimmie Johnson (blue car low) has been simply phenomenal the last few weeks, and Saturday night's win at hometown Lowe's Motor Speedway was his third win in the five championship playoff races (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

    It was a pretty exciting night at Lowe's Motor Speedway….but what little drama there was left in this year's NASCAR championship race appeared to drain away when Juan Pablo Montoya made a costly mistake on a restart and lost 100 points. And tour leader Jimmie Johnson played the night perfectly – again – beating teammate Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne to stretch his lead in the Sprint Cup chase with a solid victory in the Charlotte Banking 500.
   Johnson gained 90 points on second-place Mark Martin, who had some trouble of his own and finished 17th.
   Gordon wrestled the lead away from Johnson on the final restart with 15 laps to go, and the two waged a heck of a duel for several laps before Johnson finally got the lead back on lap 322 of the 334-lapper. Johnson then pulled away as Gordon faded and had to deal with the charging Kenseth and Kahne.
    "I had to suck it up and get everything I could those first two or three laps and get some clean air," Johnson said of that last restart. "Once we got out front I knew we'd be okay. But if he could have held for another few laps…."
    It was almost the perfect weekend – Johnson won the pole, led every practice, led the most laps, and won the race, his 46th career win, now tying him with Buck Baker at 13th on the all-time list.
   "It's not even about points now," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, said. "There are still five races to go."
    Yes, but Johnson and Knaus have won three of the first five chase races, and they are typically dominant at next weekend's stop, Martinsville Speedway.
    Montoya is now all but out of the title run after finishing 35th. On a mid-race restart, Montoya got jammed up behind Clint Bowyer and Martin, and wound up with some rear end damage that began cutting his tire. Montoya tried to hang on for a yellow but kept fading, and a caution never came out. Montoya was not pleased: "They (NASCAR) got criticized last week for throwing some cautions, but I think this week they went too far the other way."
     The night's big picture:
     Rookies Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were both impressive. Logano, stuck back in the field after an early pit stop miscue, made an amazing charge to finish fifth. Bowyer and Casey Mears, out of the beleaguered Richard Childress camp, also ran strong. And Kenseth, out of the struggling Jack Roush camp, made his strongest bid for victory since February.
     "That's the fastest car we've had in a long time, and we were great on pit road, so we were able to keep track position all night," Kenseth said. "But we weren't as fast as Jimmie."
    Kenseth opened the season with back-to-back wins at Daytona and California but then began struggling, and he's only started to catch back up in the last few weeks.
  "Those guys are awesome," Kenseth said of Johnson and Knaus. "In my eyes they've been the team to beat ever since they hooked up."
   And that was eight years ago.


  Blue champagne in victory lane? Hey, when you're as hot as Jimmie Johnson is in the NASCAR playoffs, you can pretty much do whatever your little ol' heart desires (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The results of Saturday night's Charlotte Banking 500, the fifth race of the championship chase


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