AVONDALE, Ariz. - Nobody could touch Jeff Gordon in his prime, a three-year stretch when he won 33 races and consecutive championships.
That was almost 10 years ago, and few thought they`d ever see a driver capable of dominating the way Gordon once did.
Until Jimmie Johnson came along.
Johnson took command of the Nextel Cup championship Sunday, winning at Phoenix International Raceway to open a daunting lead over his teammate in the race to the title.
It was his 10th win of the season - most since Gordon won 13 in 1998 - and barring a collapse in next week`s finale, Johnson will become the first driver to win consecutive championships since Gordon did it in 1997 and 1998.
But Johnson doesn`t want to be compared to his mentor, the four-time series champion.
"I certainly don`t want to be called the next Jeff Gordon. I am Jimmie Johnson. I`ve always done it my way," he said. "If you look at our driving styles, our setups, look at everything we do, we are on opposite ends. We do have some common interests, we are close friends.
"But I am not Jeff Gordon, so let`s just get that out of the way."
No, he`s not Gordon. But his work on the track makes it impossible not to draw the comparisons.
"They`re just unbelievably good," said Matt Kenseth, the 2003 champion. "They`re as good as any group I`ve seen, including Jeff in his heyday when he was winning 10 races a year and the championship by over a hundred points."
Johnson can realistically do the same.
The defending Nextel Cup champion, heads to next week`s season finale in Homestead, Fla., with a comfortable 86-point lead over Gordon. He needs to finish just 18th or better to win his second championship in just six seasons.
"It`s over. It`s over," conceded Gordon. "Even if we win it, it`s because they have problems. While we`ll accept it, we don`t want to do it that way.
"Those guys have flat-out killed everybody. And you`ve got to give credit where credit is due."
Johnson was subdued in Victory Lane, and refused to claim the title.
"Homestead is going to be a stressful weekend. We`ve got seven more days, I`m just going to try to keep my mind clear and focus on the things we need to do," Johnson said. "This is kind of where we were last year. We just have to go down there and be smart and see how it shakes out."
Gordon was off all day. He had a tire rub after making contact with Kevin Harvick, and finished a disappointing 10th.
It was a crushing performance on a day when Johnson raced to his fourth consecutive victory. He became the first driver to win four straight in a season since Gordon did in 1998.
Gordon, who hand-picked Johnson to join Hendrick Motorsports when the team expanded to four cars in 2002, marveled at how strong his protege has been during this championship hunt. It`s put it nearly out of reach for Gordon, who dominated the "regular season" and opened a lead of more than 300 points before the field was reset for the Chase.
"Unless you lead every lap and beat Jimmie Johnson to win the race, we don`t have a shot," Gordon said. "We`re just coming up short at a crucial time. Those guys have just knocked it out of the ballpark, and it would be tough to beat that even if we were hitting on all eight cylinders."
Although it will take a total collapse next week by a team that rarely falters for Johnson to not win the championship, crew chief Chad Knaus wasn`t ready to claim the Cup just yet.
"Obviously were real happy to extend the points lead," Knaus said. "But going into Homestead, you never know. You never know what`s going to happen.
"We could easily have an issue and not finish the race. We just have to stay focused and keep our heads down."
Greg Biffle finished second and Matt Kenseth, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, was third. Tony Stewart was fourth and was followed by Ryan Newman, Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.
Kyle Busch, who was trying to become the first driver to win three of NASCAR`s national races at the same track on the same weekend, finished eighth. Busch won the Truck Series race here on Friday, the Busch Series race on Saturday, but never made it all the way to the front in the Cup event after starting 38th.
The race mathematically eliminated everyone but Johnson and Gordon from title contention, so regardless of what happens in Homestead, Hendrick Motorsports will win its seventh Cup title.
But it was Johnson and his No. 48 team that have laid claim to the championship, refusing to play it conservatively and merely chase points. This crew has raced for wins - he went hard after Kenseth in the closing laps for a victory at Texas last week - and did the same thing here.
Not comfortable settling into second place, he passed Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 24 laps to go en route to the 33rd victory of his career and first at Phoenix.