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From worst to first, Johnson's title campaign is back on track

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Dover, DE (Sports Network) -

What a difference a week has made for Jimmie Johnson and his No.48 Hendrick Motorsports team.

Last week at New Hampshire, Johnson finished the worst among the 12-driver Chase field with a 25th-place run, but on Sunday, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion rebounded with a convincing win at Dover.

Johnson notched his sixth win of the season, but his first since the last weekend in June at New Hampshire.

Yes, NASCAR's "Superman" has returned to victory lane, and it's happened at the right time.

With 19 wins in 62 Chase races so far, Johnson and company always seem to shine during the playoffs. Dover continued his Chase success, as he started on the pole, led 191 of 400 laps and finished nearly three seconds ahead of runner-up Jeff Burton.

"They're not good; they're great," Burton said of Johnson's team. "That word is not being overused when I say that. They've won four [championships] in a row. You're not good doing that. You have to be great to do that."

Even though Johnson said his Dover win was a huge weight off of his shoulders, the end of his 10-race winless streak was no cause for celebration .. .at least yet.

"We want to win this championship, and [Sunday] was a big victory," Johnson said. Hopefully, it's a step towards the championship, but it's not the prize we want.

"We got maximum points, and I am very proud of that internally. But it's not time to celebrate. If we take this week off and take it lightly, not prepare like we need to for Kansas, we'll get beat. We can't get beat. We've got to win races and keep this momentum going."

With the win, Johnson moved from sixth to second in the Chase standings, as he trails leader Denny Hamlin by 35 points, which is the widest margin after the second race in the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson moved from sixth to second in the Chase standings.
"There's eight races left, and the points can shake up a lot," Johnson added. "I think it's going to be as exciting of a Chase as everyone is hoping for."

Hamlin was never in contention to win at Dover, but hung on for a ninth-place finish. No driver who has led in points after the second Chase race has gone on to win the championship.

"I think a lot of people are just waiting for us to slip up, like we have done in the past," Hamlin said. "I just don't see that happening this time around. I just think our team is too focused at this point, and we're running too well for that to happen.

"I think it's going to go all the way to the wire. In my opinion, I think there's going to be a handful of guys who are going to be racing legitimately for this championship at Homestead. Hopefully we're one of those groups."

Hamlin sparked a weekend of drama at Dover by harshly criticizing Clint Bowyer's team after Bowyer's New Hampshire-winning car was found to be illegal during a more thorough post-race inspection conducted at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, NC.

One week ago, it looked like Bowyer had emerged as a serious threat to end Johnson's championship streak, but after NASCAR docked him 150 points for his illegal car at New Hampshire, followed by a disappointing 25th-place finish at Dover, it appears Bowyer's title hopes have gone out the window. Richard Childress Racing is appealing the penalty, and the appeal is scheduled to be heard by a stock car racing committee on Wednesday.

Hamlin's comments on Friday led to a ruckus on the track and in the garage during practice the following day. Bowyer's teammate, Kevin Harvick, showed his displeasure towards Hamlin by bumping his car during the first lap of practice. The two exchanged heated words in the garage shortly after.

While many in the garage found the altercation between Hamlin and Harvick to be entertaining, Johnson's team had more important things on their minds.

"We didn't waste a whole lot of time being spectators at that point," Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said. "We put our heads down, got to work on what we needed to do to work on our racecar."

Dover probably won't be the only win for Johnson during this year's Chase.

Johnson excels at the upcoming tracks on the schedule. He won the 2008 race at Kansas, the next stop in the Chase. After Kansas, the series moves on to California, where he has won five races, including three of the last four. Johnson also has been dominant at Charlotte, Martinsville and Phoenix in the past.

If Johnson survives the "wild card" race at Talladega on Halloween, perhaps his "drive for five" championship celebration can begin.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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