LONG POND, Pa. — It's not a good idea to rile up Jimmie Johnson. A week after a penalty for jumping the final restart at Dover knocked Johnson out of a near-certain victory, Johnson absolutely scorched the field in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Party in the Poconos 400, beating Greg Biffle to the finish line by 1.208 seconds.
The win was Johnson's third of the season, his third at the Tricky Triangle and the 63rd of his career. Johnson increased his series lead over second-place Carl Edwards (18th Sunday) to a staggering 51 points after 14 races.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran third, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano completed the top 10.
"What a race car!" Johnson said after climbing from the No. 48 Chevrolet in Victory Lane. "Not only a great race car but an engine. We had fuel mileage and plenty of power. It was awesome on the straightaways to be able to do what I wanted around other cars."
You might think winning at Pocono for the first time since he swept both races here in 2004 might assuage the sting of last week's penalty. You'd be wrong.
"No, but it's okay," Johnson said. "It doesn't make up for much, but we know we're a great race team. Things won't keep us down. We had a great race car today and had a lot of fun."
Johnson avoided a surfeit of action in the late stages of the race - because he was ahead of it. By the time Dave Blaney's spin brought out the fourth caution on Lap 138, the five-time champion already had led 106 laps.
That yellow followed a caution for an accident in the Tunnel Turn on Lap 133, when Juan Pablo Montoya drove hard into the corner under Matt Kenseth, lost control of his No. 42 and started a synchronized spin with Kenseth.
Subsequently, Johnson had to endure four restarts but did so as the leader and quickly regained control of the race in each instance. All told, Johnson led 128 of 160 laps.
Biffle was happy with a runner-up finish that jumped him three positions to 10th in the standings, but he conceded that his No. 16 Ford was no match for Johnson's Chevy SS.
"Jimmie was in a league of his own," said Biffle, who took the green flag from the fourth position on the final restart with four laps left and surged past Earnhardt and Kyle Busch in the first corner. "I was going to have to get up beside him, take the air off him - something to try and gain an advantage.
"But I gave him such a good push on the restart I couldn't catch back up with him ... I couldn't get him."
Though Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Hamlin finished sixth and eighth, respectively, Hamlin said he could feel a reduction in horsepower in his TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engine, after the engines were detuned in favor of reliability in reaction to several recent valve train failures.
"Any horsepower change is going to be a difficult thing to overcome, especially this week and next week (at Michigan), our two horsepower race tracks," Hamlin said. "I wouldn't be opposed to say that other guys probably stepped up coming to this race track, and we took a step back. It's kind of a double whammy, but it's something TRD's going to work through."
Can Jimmie Johnson sustain peak performance for a full season?
If I were Jimmie Johnson, I'd be worried.
If I were Jimmie Johnson, I'd be concerned that the take-'em-outbehind- the-woodshed sorts of whippings I've been laying on my NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors can't continue unabated.
If I were Jimmie Johnson, I'd be concerned about peaking too early in the season.
If I were Jimmie Johnson, I'd be concerned that I might not have enough left for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
If I were Jimmie Johnson, I'd be concerned about showing my hand this early in the year and giving my rivals a performance benchmark to equal or exceed.
Of course, I'm not Jimmie Johnson, and my sense is that the fivetime champion isn't concerned about much of anything right now.
Johnson's own history should provide a significant comfort level as he and crew chief Chad Knaus execute a season-long game plan designed to produce a sixth Cup championship.
Remember 2007? That's when the Car of Tomorrow, now known as Gen-5, debuted in the Cup series on a part-time basis. Hendrick Motorsports drivers won 18 of 36 points races that year. Johnson accounted for 10 of those victories en route to his second straight Cup title. This year, the debut of the Gen-6 race car, Johnson has three wins in 14 races. His lead in the standings swelled at Pocono to a staggering 51 points over second-place Carl Edwards - more than one full race.
That's by design, because Johnson is on a mission. He and wife Chani are expecting their second child in September, and the fivetime champ would prefer to clinch a Chase spot before the regularseason finale at Richmond, in case he has to miss a race or give way to a relief driver to witness the birth.
"My selfish motivation for that, if Chani goes into labor early, I don't want to have to worry about Richmond, honestly," Johnson said after the race. "That's what I'm working so hard for. I always work hard anyway, but it sure takes some pressure off if we lock early and don't have to worry about Richmond."
That means Johnson is going to keep the hammer down and try to stretch his points advantage as much as he can over the next 10 weeks or so. Given that he's already 126 points ahead of Greg Biffle in 10th place, the last guaranteed Chase spot, Johnson may well clinch a berth by the time the series gets to Bristol in August.
Biffle's second-place press conference on Sunday sounded more like a concession speech.
"They clearly have the best cars right now in the garage," Biffle said of the No. 48 team. "When you're on a roll, you're on a roll when you've got good stuff."
So, as I said, if I were Jimmie Johnson, I wouldn't have a care in the world right now.
If I were any of the other guys hoping to win a Cup championship this year, I wouldn't be worried either.
I'd be scared to death.