Stephanie McMahon Q&A:

Johnson's points lead lofty as All-Star break hits

NASCAR.com

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- One year removed from celebrating a historic 200th win for car owner Rick Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson had much more modest elation this time around at Darlington Raceway.

But the evening's developments hinted that Johnson possesses a broader view of what could be a bigger celebration at season's end.

Johnson eked out a fourth-place finish in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500, stretching his points lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to 44 over championship rival Carl Edwards, who finished seventh.

The five-time Cup champion could almost take a race off and maintain his lead in the standings, considering the maximum points a driver can earn in a given race is 48 -- Johnson's car number. But Johnson gave every impression that he intends to pour it on before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins after the regular-season finale Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway.

"The big picture, we want to lock in before Richmond and control as much of the regular season as we can," said Johnson, who won the most recent of his five titles in 2010. "We're doing that right now, so I'm very happy. We didn't win the race, but I think we opened up the gap from first to second (in the points) and that's nice to do."

Johnson had to overcome some mild adversity after his Hendrick crew had trouble changing the rear tires during the last round of pit stops. He lost five spots in the exchange, dipping to eighth for the next-to-last restart.

"Just kind of mired back at that point," Johnson said. "Still, passed a few cars, went from eighth to fourth. Picked up four spots, but that (stop) didn't help any."

Repeat wins at Darlington aren't extraordinarily rare, but going back-to-back at one of NASCAR's most treacherous circuits is no easy task. Still, Johnson will take a top-five and a two-week grasp on the standings lead heading into next Saturday night's non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.

"Another good points night," he said. "I know Richmond is still kind of far away, but top of my mind, I want to make sure we collect as many points as we can if we can't win."

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