KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson didn't qualify where he wanted, and his car never quite cooperated during the final practice session at Kansas Speedway. So he spent Saturday evening in the garage area, going over different setups with the rest of his team.
That dedication, that attention to detail, is a big reason he's chasing his sixth straight Cup title.
Johnson and his team must have figured things out. The defending series champion stormed to the front early Sunday, then weathered a series of late cautions before holding off Kasey Kahne in a green-white-checkered finish for his first win since April.
"Jimmie was very dedicated last night with us, trying to figure out the setup of the car," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "We pored over a lot of combinations and we came up with a good one."
Talk about an understatement.
Johnson led 197 laps in one of the most dominant performances the track has ever seen. The victory was the 55th for Johnson, moving him into a tie with Rusty Wallace for the eighth on the career list, and the 199th for team owner Rick Hendrick.
"The competitor in all of us, we've known we've been close," Johnson said.
Johnson stumbled through the first two races in NASCAR's version of a postseason, and was 10th in the standings heading to Dover. A second-place finish last weekend gave him confidence, and his first win since Talladega moved him into third in the Chase behind Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.
"I know what my team is capable of," Johnson said, "and we showed today what we're capable of when we're all performing at the top of our game."
Jeff Gordon made things interesting when his engine blew up with three laps remaining.
Johnson chose not to pit before the sprint to the finish, but still managed to drive away from Kahne and Brad Keselowski on worn out tires. Keselowski, who won the Nationwide race Saturday, wound up third and climbed into fourth place in the Chase with six races left.
"It all comes back to having a good team," Keselowski said. "Good teams have good cars, they're the best at the end, the fastest at the end, they have good pit strategy and they're strong through adversity, and I just have a really good team."
Tony Stewart spent most of the afternoon trying to chase down Johnson, and at times appeared to have the car to do it. Stewart had climbed 17 spots to sixth after about 50 laps, and at one point brashly told his team over the radio, "I'm in a hurry ... I've got things to do."
A series of mistakes near the end cost him, though.
Stewart chose to pit when Gordon brought out the final caution, but carried too much speed down pit road and slid through his stall. By the time his team backed him up and changed tires, Stewart had shuffled back to 17th and he crossed the finish line in 15th.
Stewart won the first two races of the Chase to vault into the points lead, but he struggled all weekend at Dover and finished 25th. He'll now head to Charlotte eighth in the standings.
Edwards and Harvick came in tied for lead in the Chase, with the top nine drivers separated by a mere 19 points. Things shook out a bit Sunday, but Edwards and Harvick are still on top.
Edwards struggled with a tight car all afternoon, and he dropped a lap down at one point, but got back on the lead lap after a caution and stormed to a fifth-place finish.
The Missouri native climbed out of his car and said he felt as if he'd won.
"We're lucky," Edwards said. "We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. We've messed up enough in the past that I'm pretty proud of ability to take our bad days and keep plugging along. We messed up some races, some points races, in the past, and I believe we've learned from that. It's a little test when you go through this to see if someone melts down."
Edwards leads the Chase by a point over Harvick, who finished sixth. Keselowski climbed two spots to fourth in the standings, Matt Kenseth is fifth after a fourth-place run, Kurt Busch dropped two spots to sixth and Kyle Busch is seventh after his top-10 finish.
There is still just 19 points separating the top eight drivers.
They're all chasing Johnson.
The most dominant driver in NASCAR started 19th and quickly drove to the front, then set it on cruise control the rest of the afternoon. Stewart tried to challenge him, and a few other contenders tried to work fuel strategy to make up ground, but the late yellows took that out of the equation.
Johnson passed Keselowski for the lead after a caution with 27 laps remaining, and then held off the field during the green-white-checkered finish.
"He's going to be tough," Keselowski said. "The real question is we've got two big wild card races with Phoenix and Talladega, and I don't think you can rule anyone in or out until those two races are over and we get to Homestead."