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Johnson's 26th career win extends Gordon's drought

4/2/2007 - NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Once the prodigy brought into the
Hendrick Motorsports fold by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson gave his
mentor no quarter with victory at stake.

Johnson withstood his teammate's 53-lap challenge that included
plenty of banging Sunday and held him off by a bumper for his third
NASCAR Nextel Cup win in six races.

"I'm speechless. I've looked up to him my whole career, before
I even was back here racing. I've looked up to him and knew how
good he was at Martinsville," Johnson said of Gordon, whose seven
career wins at the track are the most among active racers.

"That was probably the hardest driving I've ever done."

The teammates provided a stirring duel at the end of the second
Car of Tomorrow race, one that had been mostly devoid of the
destructive physical driving that normally leaves several cars
broken long before the checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway.

But the show at the finish was all Johnson and Gordon, who tried
everything he could short of wrecking his teammate and friend, but
couldn't make the pass.

"The only way I could get by him was to wreck him, but he's my
teammate and I tell you what, there's going to be some interesting
racing going forward because he blocked me really bad," Gordon
said. "I thought I had a chance at him a couple times, but he shut
the door on me pretty good. ... He did exactly what he should have
done."

Which doesn't mean the four-time series champion liked it at
all.

"I'm happy for Jimmie, I am happy for Hendrick to win the race,
but I am really disappointed that we didn't win because I thought
we should have," Gordon said.

Johnson won for the 26th time in his career and extended
Gordon's winless streak to 24, keeping him one victory short of
tying the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth on NASCAR's career list
with 76. It was Hendricks' seventh victory in the last nine races
at 0.526-mile Martinsville, the smallest, oldest and trickiest
track on the circuit.

At the end, Johnson put on a classic display of defense to hold
on.

"I gave him the inside lane a few times," Johnson said. "I
didn't want to squeeze him and run him up on the curb, so I left
him the inside lane, but coming down to the checkered flag, he gave
me a shot in 3 and 4 and at that point, I just turned left and
crowded him and tried beating him back to the start-finish line."

The margin of victory was 0.065 seconds.

The Car of Tomorrow appeared to have a lot to do with the
finish. Designed with bumpers that don't allow the trailing car to
lift and move the car in front as readily as the other race cars
have, Gordon said he would have had to hit Johnson really hard -- and on the right spot on the track -- to get him to slide up the
track enough to pass.

Johnson, though, didn't feel like Gordon had held back at all.

"I would have been wrecked with last year's car with hits that
hard," he said, adding that he thought the last one would have
made a car's airbag deploy.

But, he said, he doesn't expect any problems with Gordon because
of the respect they have for each other and the relationship they
have forged as teammates.

"It's certainly something that we'll work out," he said.

Denny Hamlin finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart, giving Chevrolet the
top seven spots. Scott Riggs was eighth in a Dodge, followed by the
COT Fords of Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.

Hamlin and Earnhardt, along with the Hendrick teammates,
dominated the race. Hamlin started on the pole and led 125 laps,
and Earnhardt led 137, the last with 123 to go.

"We're tired of running so good here and not winning,"
Earnhardt said.

Gordon led three times for 92 laps, but none of the last 113.
The first 10 of those were led by teammate Kyle Busch, but Johnson
passed him on lap 388 and kept going, giving the Hendrick teams
both Car of Tomorrow victories. Busch won last week.

"It's kind of one of those starts you dream about," owner Rick
Hendrick said. His teams have now won four races in a row. In
another, they finished second and third.

The race was slowed for 93 laps by 13 cautions, but most of
those were one-car spins or accidents, not the kind of multicar
accidents typical of Martinsville.

The race almost appeared ready to end before any of the late
drama.

With Earnhardt leading, the race was red-flagged by rain with
357 laps to go. Black clouds surrounded the track, but the delay
lasted less than 32 minutes.

When it resumed under a yellow flag, Johnson and Hamlin headed
for pit road, a move that paid off when another caution sent the
leaders to the pits with about 125 left.

Busch had the lead when it went back to green with 118 laps to
go, and Johnson passed him five laps later. When Gordon passed
Hamlin for second with 53 laps to go, it quickly became a two-car
battle, and the pupil held off his one-time mentor.