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July 14. 2013 9:23PM

Allen Lessels' On Motorsports: Jimmie Johnson remains the driver to beat

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (48) leads the way during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

LOUDON -- MAYBE Tony Stewart had it wrong.

Perhaps the race for the 2013 Sprint Cup championship is all but over. Perhaps they ought to be inscribing Jimmie Johnson's name on the trophy this week. Maybe a sixth Cup is just a matter of time and playing out the rest of this long NASCAR season.

Johnson didn't win Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

He came up with a big result, though. Johnson dealt with some major adversity over the weekend and checked in with a fifth-place finish in a race won by one of his buddies, Brian Vickers, and managed to extend his lead in the Cup point standings.

Johnson and his team aren't about to rest on their healthy lead.

"I didn't even look at that," said crew chief Chad Knaus of the points race. "We do it week by week, man. Whatever we can do, we do."

They did it here.

They did it despite starting dead-last in the 43-car field.

The team had a problem with the assembly of a piece of equipment in the front of the Lowe's Chevrolet on Friday. As a result, the car failed its post-qualifying inspection late on Friday and Johnson's qualifying time, which was second only to that of pole-sitter Brad Keselowski, was thrown out.

Johnson was sent to the rear.

No fists went through walls, Johnson said. There were no outbursts. Frustration did not flow.

"Not when it's self-inflicted," Johnson said. "If it was something else. . . . When it's self-inflicted, we have nobody to blame but ourselves."

So they took the blame and took their penalty and plotted a strategy that called for being aggressive and attacking the race and moving up through the pack as quickly as possible.

Johnson charged through the field and avoided trouble and picked off cars that are not nearly his equal in the early-going. He was 22nd at Lap 36 and was 14th at Lap 100.

He settled in for a while there and was 12th at the halfway point of the race. A few laps later, he made a four-spot gain with a quick pit stop and was inside the top 10.

The going, as expected, got tougher as they went and they never did get to the very front of the race.

"It was tough," Johnson said. "It wasn't easy by any means."

Passing was difficult and Johnson did much of his work on restarts.

"You had to make quick work of people on restarts and then we all kind of fell into line and you'd have to wait for the guy in front of you to bobble and make a mistake," he said. "But these guys are all pretty good out there and there weren't many opportunities to get, but we just fought for them through the day."

In the end, Vickers squeezed out the win and Kyle Busch was second and Jeff Burton third.

Keselowski finished fourth, and needed that result badly after a string of tough results, and Aric Almirola was fifth.

Busch gained five points on Johnson and Keselowski picked up three, but they are still 120 (Busch) and 167 (Keselowski) behind him.

Johnson ran his lead to 56 points over Clint Bowyer, who is second in points, and 73 over Carl Edwards in third. He'll own first place at least through the next race at Indianapolis on July 28 since a maximum of 48 points are available for each event.

Not bad for a weekend on which his rivals saw him as at least a little vulnerable after the qualifying issues.

Most of those racers have more to worry about than chasing Johnson.

Seven races now remain until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 15 and the battle continues over the 12 spots in the Chase.

Keselowski, the defending Cup champion, is still looking for his first win of the season, but helped his cause on Sunday.

He moved from 13th in the standings to ninth, far from safe but going in the right direction.

"It is a solid day, but not the win I want for sure," Keselowski said. "It is a solid day though and something to be proud of."

Keselowski had been going backwards in the standings and had managed only one top-10 finish in his last 10 races.

Johnson and Knaus were mostly OK with their solid finish, too.

"We couldn't quite get what we needed, but at the end it was a solid top-10 finish," Knaus said. "I can't complain a whole lot. That's what our goal was, to get back in the top 10 and we were able to pull that off ... I'm not happy, but pleased."

Stewart pointed out on Friday that there was plenty of time left in the season and that no championship should be handed out to Johnson just yet.

There is lots of time left.
But Johnson looks mighty strong, too.

alessels@unionleader On twitter: @allenlessels

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