Johnson locks up Chase top seed; Earnhardt out

RICHMOND, Va. &#8212 Jimmie Johnson hit his stride at exactly the right time, winning two straight races to roll into the Chase for the championship. Dale Earnhardt Jr. never had a chance, the victim of five faulty motors when his season was on the line.

Now Johnson will run for a second consecutive Nextel Cup title, while Earnhardt watches from the sidelines for the second time in three years

Johnson easily raced to his series-best sixth victory of the season, winning Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway to shore up the top seed in the Chase. But Earnhardt, the only driver mathematically eligible to race his way into contention, suffered his third blown motor in the past seven races to finish 30th.

“We broke another motor and they seem to fall apart when they plug ’em into my car,” Earnhardt said. “We deserve to be in the Chase. We race hard. We don’t quit. We love racing. It’s just disappointing, man. These dang motors.”

He’s not likely to have those problems when he joins Hendrick Motorsports next season.

Johnson and Co. have been near flawless this season, and the defending series champion will start the 10-race title hunt on top of the standings.

“Everything is working right now,” he said. “We’re happy to be hitting our stride at this point in the season.”

After a brief summer swoon, Johnson rallied to win last week in California and then complete a season sweep at Richmond. He believes this streak will send him into the Chase with the momentum to hold off the competition.

But NASCAR’s most popular driver won’t be one of them. He was running as high as second very late in the race, but yet another blown motor had him in the garage as Johnson crossed the finish line.

He shared a brief hug with cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who is following him to Hendrick at the end of the season.

“Tony Jr. is really upset,” he said. “Those crewman are the guys who put in all the time and effort and they work real hard. Just to be running so good to make the car better all night, and to get up to the top five . to blow up at the end, you know, it’s really hard on them guys, personally, because they put so much into it.”

Earnhardt started the race as the only driver mathematically eligible to race into the Chase, but the odds were stacked against him. Kevin Harvick, the driver on the bubble, had to finish 33rd or worse, paired with a flawless Earnhardt run, for Junior to make it.

Harvick had two dicey moments – including a side-trip through the grass to avoid nemesis Juan Pablo Montoya’s spinning car – but he recovered to coast to a seventh-place finish.

“I saw a lot of cars and wrecks and a lot of things that happened and I knew it was pretty close,” Harvick said. “I saw (Earnhardt) running third, and in my head I knew where we were and kind of turned it up a little bit.”

This “regular-season” finale has been full of excitement since NASCAR implemented the Chase for the championship in 2004. It sent several bubble drivers into the race needing miracles to keep their title hopes intact.

But NASCAR changed the format this year, widening the Chase field from 10 to 12 drivers and implementing a seeding system that awarded 10 bonus points for every regular-season victory. It diluted the drama of this particular race and made it almost impossible for Earnhardt to race his way in.