Jimmie Johnson wins Coca-Cola 600, gets back in Cup title contention

Jimmie Johnson won his seventh race in Charlotte Sunday night. Now, Jimmie Johnson can start thinking about defending his Sprint Cup championship from a year ago.

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    Driver Jimmie Johnson holds the checkered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Coca-Cola 600 auto race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Sunday, May 25, 2014.
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Jimmie Johnson's run at another Sprint Cup title is on and could bring him a piece of NASCAR history.

Johnson's victory in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night all but locked him into the new, expanded championship Chase format. If the 38-year-old Johnson pulls it off, it'll be his seventh series crown to tie the NASCAR mark shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

NASCAR leaders changed the emphasis in qualifying, putting more of a premium on wins over the steadiness of points racing. That's led to a flurry of drivers taking the checkered flag — 10 of them through 12 races — all gleefully celebrating their near-assured spot in the 10-race championship run at the end.

Johnson had been on the outside of that until his record-breaking seventh career win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He outlasted second-place Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth in third to pick up his fourth victory all-time in NASCAR's longest race.

"The first goal is to make the Chase," Johnson said. "You want to win races at the end of the season."

Few had done that better when it counts than Johnson. He's collected 14 Chase victories in his six title runs, including a pair last season that led him to title No. 6. It's a recipe, combined with the No. 48's typically solid performance, Johnson was certain would prevail no matter how many outside the race shop raised questions.

"Of course, we want to win early and often," Johnson said. "But we were holding steady in championship points. In my opinion, I don't believe there will be 16 different winners.

"I felt like a strong championship points position would get us into the first phase of the Chase," he added. "Granted, tonight simplifies things."

And gives crew chief Chad Knaus the ability to take a few chances to prepare for the playoffs the rest of the season. Not that he has to as the team approaches a stretch of tracks where they know success.

Next week comes Dover where Johnson owns a record eight victories, then Pocono where Johnson's won three times.

When Johnson broke through for his first crown in 2006, he and Knaus used the formula to add four more in one of the series' most dominant stretches. After Johnson finished sixth in 2011 and third in 2012, he was back on top last season and moved one step closer to the record with two drivers who were part of NASCAR's first Hall of Fame class five years ago.

Johnson, who had a Hall of Fame vote as Sprint Cup champion, isn't thinking much about that yet. The 38-year-old star is eager to build on his dominant showing in Charlotte.

Johnson took his first pole of the season Thursday and was strong in practice Saturday. He led 165 of the 400 laps, proving his strength at the start before settling into the rhythm of NASCAR's long, long night.

Johnson led 10 different times, including a final time with nine laps left when he swept past Kenseth in Turn 4 and was never pressured on his way to the checkered flag.

With a race win finally checked off his to-do list, Johnson can concentrate on prepping for the 10-race playoffs later on. Under the new format, the playoff field will shrink by four drivers after every three races so only four will have a shot for the trophy come Homestead in November.

Johnson earned the 11th career Coca-Cola 600 victory for car owner Rick Hendrick, who's got no doubt Johnson and Knaus are pointed to another big season.

"What they've been able to accomplish together, it's been amazing," he said. "I always say I'm just glad I don't have to race against them."

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