Jimmie Johnson claimed the lead of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup after beating his Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon to victory at Fontana.
The reigning champion led the most laps during the 500-mile event but came under pressure from Gordon in the closing stages of the race. The four-times champion was able to pass Johnson on the penultimate restart but just before the final caution, he was able to easily regain the lead.
On the final restart with four laps to go, following a multi-car crash involving three of the Chase contenders, Johnson was able to stay in control while Gordon tried to fend off Juan Pablo Montoya for second place. As Mark Martin joined the battle for second, Johnson drove away to take his fifth win of the season and the 45th of his Sprint Cup career.
"That's awesome," said Johnson. "That's what we wanted. Keep chipping away at it but obviously there's a lot of racing left. We're in good shape.
"It is such a long race and so much takes place. I knew on pit road that you win some and lose some. Just a solid day all along. Those cautions at the end really had me nervous. I just didn't know what to do on the restarts. The No. 24 [Gordon] would get me on some of them. The No. 42 [Montoya] was racing.
"I knew once we had three or four laps I was in good shape but there at the end I really didn't have many laps. I'm glad I got a good start and got going."
Johnson spent 126 laps at the front of the field, and apart from his late battle with Gordon, Montoya was clearly his main opponent for most of the distance. The Colombian led 79 laps and looked like the dominant force in the first half of the race, where Johnson not only lost to him on the track but also on pitlane.
However as the sun started to raise track temperatures, Montoya struggled more with the balance of his car, but still his fourth consecutive top five finish in the Chase allows him to remain in contention for the series title.
"We were really good when it was cloudy," said Montoya. "When the sun came out we started sliding too much and couldn't really find the balance between how much grip I wanted to have in the corner and how much I wanted the power there, I just couldn't. There at the end it cooled down and I got a little better but it was too late."
Gordon's second place allows him to move up to fifth in the Chase, and despite having a shot at victory and leading the race for six laps, he admitted Johnson was in another league once again.
"It was fun, fun on those restarts," said Gordon. "Even when I would get the lead on him, I knew how strong he was. I tried to run the bottom there in [Turns} 3 and 4. On one of those last restarts, he just drove right by me on the outside.
"We are putting great efforts out. It was a great day coming home second. We had fun but second is pretty much all I think anybody had today."
Martin, who eventually lost the points lead, despite his fourth place finish, is now 12 points behind Johnson in the championship heading to Charlotte next weekend.
Tony Stewart made a great recovery in the end to finish fifth after being a lap down earlier, following a speeding penalty that he had to serve under green flag conditions. The timing of the caution flags helped him get back in contention to salvage a top-five result out of a race that had not looked promising for him.
"It was making chicken salad out of chicken you know what," said Stewart. "We were pretty fortunate to get a couple of breaks there when we needed them. We just had to fight for the track position there at the end.
"At the end, we had to be there on the bottom but we were best on the top after about 15 laps. It just would not take off on the beginning of a run. It took a lot of time for our air pressures to build up and get the car solid. But, once it would we could get to the top and run pretty quick.
"We have a lot of racing left."
Carl Edwards was sixth but never a factor for victory, followed by his Roush Fenway team-mate David Ragan. Behind them Kurt Busch was seventh despite brushing the wall twice, the last of them causing an incident with 11 laps remaining. Busch bounced off the wall against Kasey Kahne who got into Greg Biffle, both of them picking up severe damage to their cars, while Busch carried on without much trouble.
The incident was followed by another one only five laps later, ignited by Elliott Sadler getting into the back of Dale Earnhardt Jr as they battled for a top ten finish. At least eight cars were involved in the incident, including all four Richard Petty Motorsports Dodges, as Kahne was once again in the middle of mayhem, this time being unable to rejoin the race.
Another Chase driver hitting trouble was Denny Hamlin, who led the race for 20 laps but spun out of the lead on a restart on lap 188. His team had performed a great stop, getting him up from fifth to first, but while trying to defend his lead from Montoya on the restart, he misjudged his distance to the Colombian and closed the door when he had not cleared him, getting spun and hitting the inside wall.
Brian Vickers also had a tough day due to problems with a shock absorber, which left him four laps down and 29th in the end.
Kyle Busch eventually had to be replaced by David Gilliland as the Gibbs driver's flu-like symptoms worsened. He drove the first part of the race, while Gilliland parked the No. 71 car to wait for Busch to stop under the first caution of the day. He finished 24th and two laps down on the winner.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 250
2. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 250
3. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 250
4. Mark Martin Chevrolet 250
5. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 250
6. Carl Edwards Ford 250
7. David Ragan Ford 250
8. Kurt Busch Dodge 250
9. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 250
10. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 250
11. Casey Mears Chevrolet 250
12. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 250
13. Matt Kenseth Ford 250
14. Joey Logano Toyota 250
15. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 250
16. David Stremme Dodge 250
17. Michael Waltrip Toyota 250
18. David Reutimann Toyota 250
19. John Andretti Chevrolet 250
20. Greg Biffle Ford 250
21. Scott Speed Toyota 250
22. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 250
23. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 250
24. Kyle Busch Toyota 248
25. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 248
26. Bobby Labonte Ford 247
27. Paul Menard Ford 247
28. Regan Smith Chevrolet 247
29. Brian Vickers Toyota 246
30. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 245
31. Reed Sorenson Dodge 244
32. Elliott Sadler Dodge 244
33. AJ Allmendinger Dodge 244
34. Kasey Kahne Dodge 244
35. Max Papis Toyota 244
36. Jamie McMurray Ford 209
37. Denny Hamlin Toyota 195
38. Robby Gordon Toyota 121
39. Joe Nemechek Toyota 29
40. Michael McDowell Toyota 25
41. Dave Blaney Toyota 22
42. David Gilliland Chevrolet 13
43. Mike Bliss Dodge 11