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Chase far from being settled with two races to go

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In what looked to be a ho-hum battle for this year's Sprint Cup Series championship, Jimmie Johnson's misfortune at Texas Motor Speedway has made for an interesting turn of events in the Chase.

Johnson had been on cruise control for his unprecedented fourth straight Cup title until his Chase mulligan unexpectedly occurred with a lap three crash in the Dickies 500. He spent more than one hour in the garage for repairs, and then limped home to a 38th-place finish.

While Johnson held a commanding 184-point lead prior to Sunday's race, the topic of conversation had been his apparent opportunity to clinch the championship next weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Now, the title scenario has changed with a major shakeup in points among the top-three drivers.

The view from Johnson's rearview mirror has Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon closing in with two races remaining on the schedule. Martin finished fourth and moved to within 73 points of Johnson, and Gordon narrowed his gap to 112 markers after a 13th-place run.

Despite a season-worst finish, Jimmie Johnson continues to hold a respectable lead.
"As we saw [Sunday], anything can happen," Johnson said. "It still is ouch. It's not as bad as it could have been. We could have been 43rd. At one point [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] told me to hop out of the car, it was done, we're going to have to put it on the truck. They were able to get it fixed. Mark didn't win. There were a couple small things that helped us in the end."

Despite a season-worst finish, Johnson continues to hold a respectable lead with Phoenix -- one of his better tracks -- up next on the schedule. He has won the last two fall races there.

Martin, who picked up his first win of the season in April at Phoenix, kept his hopes of winning his first Cup championship very much alive by cutting 111 points from Johnson's lead. The 50-year-old driver began the Chase in September as the sentimental favorite to win the title, but last week's big crash in the final laps at Talladega Superspeedway put him behind the eight- ball. Johnson finished sixth, while Martin wound up 28th at Talladega.

"It happened this way in reverse last week," said Martin, who has finished runner-up in Cup points four times. "I'm not really sure why everybody counts everything out. When it comes right down to performance, you can't beat Jimmie Johnson and those guys. It's not over yet.

"The top six, I'm still kind of baffled why everybody is so preoccupied with first and second. The top-six spots are being raced for like a dog fight. I've got to past champions [Tony Stewart and Gordon] that knocked me out of championships breathing down my neck, so the race is still on for all of us."

It's not likely, but possible, that Johnson could wrap up the championship at Phoenix. He would need to hold a lead of 195 points or more to clinch the title next Sunday.

Meanwhile, track officials at Homestead will anxiously await the outcome of Phoenix, with hopes of their November 22 season-ending race not turning out to be a meaningless one.

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

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