TALLADEGA, Ala. - At one point during Sunday's Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Jimmie Johnson had last place securely nailed down.
But by the time the race ended, a solid lead in his race for a third consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship was what Johnson had.
When the smoke cleared from a late-race 12-car wreck that collected five drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and NASCAR finally declared a winner after a controversial finish, Johnson was credited with ninth place.
The finish, combined with the melee that took out Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle - his nearest competitors for the championship - left Johnson with a 72-point advantage over Edwards with six of the 10 Chase races remaining.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"Without a doubt, there is a sigh of relief," Johnson said after the race. "When you looked at what happened today to some of our competition, that is what we all fear will happen. It was a solid day with an awesome finish."
It didn't look that way in the first 25 laps, when Johnson was riding around in 43rd. He had drifted to the back of the pack to avoid getting caught up in an early wreck and instead lost the draft and eventually fell a lap down.
"We got our lap back. It was a very emotional day and draining across the board," Johnson said. "This team has a lot of fight and we fought all day long and even got ourselves in contention (for the win) at the end."
After the late-race multicar wreck, Johnson actually ended up in position to compete for the win - which had appeared inconceivable early in the race. At one point before the final restart, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, discussed their options - whether to race for the win or take a more conservative approach.
"I tried to go (on the restart). They dropped the green flag and I took off. I couldn't even accelerate and keep up with the cars in front of me," Johnson said. "I was in no-man's-land.
"I felt comfortable being aggressive at the end with such a small group of guys and I had a feeling we'd stay single-file. I just couldn't go anywhere on that last restart."