Johnson sweeps Darlington; Cup race closest ever
He got some unexpected help Sunday from teammate Jeff Gordon, whose crew made an uncharacteristic mistake on pit lane. Johnson took advantage of the opportunity to win the final Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and move within easy reach of Nextel Cup points leader Kurt Busch with one race remaining.
Johnson dominated most of the 26-race regular season, but lost a big lead when his No. 48 Chevrolet team started to experiment with new parts. He then started the new 10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship poorly, falling to ninth place, 247 points behind leader Busch after the first four races of the Chase for the Cup.
But four victories in the last five races, combined with a sixth-place finish last week at Phoenix, have given the third-year Cup driver momentum going into next Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I can't believe it,'' said Johnson, who has dedicated his season to the 10 people killed in the crash Oct. 24 of a team plane. "Fighting our way back in this championship with what took place with the airplane and Hendrick Motorsports, I just can't believe it.
"We have eight wins now in the season with everyone still healing from the loss over everybody on that airplane. That void inside of me just isn't filled, but this certainly helps. This is good medicine. We'll just keep rolling with it.''
Busch fought an ill-handling car after his Ford was damaged early in the race when rookie Brendan Gaughan bounced off the wall and hit him. Busch somehow overcame adversity, as he has several times during the Chase, to post a sixth-place finish and retain the points lead.
"We feel like we dodged a bullet today,'' Busch said. "We can smile about the way it finished, but we didn't race very well. It was an evil race car. But the kind of effort my team put in on pit road today is what is the key to winning a championship.''
Johnson, who gave his crew credit for getting him to the lead late in the race with two fast pit stops, had to overtake rookie Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray after they stayed out when the other leaders pitted for tires during the last of eight caution periods.
The race restarted with 18 to go in the 367-lap event and Johnson, in third, passed Kahne for second place on lap 352 and took the lead from McMurray on 359. Then he pulled away to his 14th career win.
"Those guys were racing real hard,'' Johnson said. "I knew I had to get everything I could on my new tires. I got by the No. 9 (Kahne) and then ran down the No. 42 (McMurray).
"He was doing a good job of trying to put his car where I wanted to be and I got into him a little bit off turn four and loosened him up. Then I finally set him up so I could get inside of him. It was just good hard racing.''
Johnson, who beat Mark Martin to the finish line by 0.959-seconds -- about six car-lengths -- also won the race in March on Darlington's tough 1.366-mile oval. Gordon led a race-high 155 laps. Johnson led 124.
Gordon, a six-time Darlington winner, appeared on the way to an easy victory, dominating the second half of the race until he pitted on lap 337 during another caution period. His car came down on an air hose, costing him precious time and the four-time series champion, leading coming entering pit road, came out sixth.
He charged to the end but couldn't catch Johnson or Martin. McMurray finished fourth, followed by Kahne, Busch and rookie Carl Edwards.
"If we're going to win this championship, we can't make these kind of mistakes,'' Gordon said. "We made a mistake and it cost the win and a lot of momentum going to Homestead.''
Heading to the finale, Busch, who came into Sunday's race leading Gordon by 41 points, now leads Johnson by 18 and Gordon by 21. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had to pit late in the race to change a battery, finished 11th and now trails by 72 points, with Martin 82 behind.
The day began with the top five separated by 104 points.
At one point during Sunday's race, Busch had slipped to third place in the points. But his strong finish kept him in the lead he has had since the third race of the 10-event championship chase. Busch, who has now finished in the top 10 in eight of the last nine races, was proud of his team's effort on Sunday.
"We've had quite a few things on our side, whether they were in our control or out of our control, and we keep positioning ourselves for great finishes,'' Busch said. "We need to do it one more week.''
The Southern 500, traditionally run on Labor Day weekend, was moved to November when NASCAR gave the holiday date to the newer, bigger California Speedway. Darlington, which holds only about 60,000 spectators, will lose the second event to Texas Motor Speedway next year and will have only a May race.
For the first time, the race began in sunshine and finished under Darlington's new lights, challenging all the drivers with constantly changing conditions.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press