Johnson first to record 600 three-peat

Updated: May 30, 2005, 12:12 AM ET
Associated Press

CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson slid past Bobby Labonte in the final turn to win the Coca-Cola 600 for the third consecutive year Sunday night. This one was nowhere near as easy as his previous wins.

Unlike his past two dominating victories, Johnson had to come from fourth place to chase down Labonte after a restart with five laps to go. Labonte did his best to hold off Johnson, who needed just three laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway to pull onto the leader's bumper.

Johnson got there on the final lap and edged past coming out of the final turn to grab his second victory of the season. He became the first driver to win three-straight Coca-Cola 600s.

Three-peat bids in the 600
Year Driver Finish In Three-Peat Att.
2003-04 Jimmie Johnson 1st
1997-98 Jeff Gordon 39th
1992-93 Dale Earnhardt 9th
1988-89 Darrell Waltrip 22nd
1982-83 Neil Bonnett 12th
1978-79 Darrell Waltrip 2nd

"Three 600s, that's just amazing," said Johnson, the Nextel Cup Series points leader. "It will sink in as the days wear on. Today, regardless of the record book, regardless of what was going on, we just wanted to have a solid race.

"We did that, and went into the record books at the same time."

Labonte, off to a horrid start this season, kicked his car in disgust as he climbed out of it.

"I just did it my way, and I lost," said Labonte, who was trying to end a 47-race winless streak on the 10-year anniversary of his first-career victory.

Johnson, meanwhile, had a bottle thrown at his car during his victory lap and was slightly booed when he got out of it. He didn't seem to notice as he celebrated with his Hendrick Motorsports crew.

"I saw a few of them throwing beer cans at me," he said. "I don't think they liked [the win], but that's all right."

Carl Edwards was third, followed by Jeremy Mayfield and pole-sitter Ryan Newman. Greg Biffle was sixth, Martin Truex Jr. was seventh and Dale Jarrett, Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace rounded out the top 10.

A year ago, Johnson led 500 of the 600 miles.

This year, he didn't even have the best car of his teammates. But anything was possible in this race, NASCAR's longest of the year. It turned into a demolition derby with a series-record 22 cautions. The numerous wrecks ranged from isolated spins to the downright bizarre.

Joe Nemechek crashed into the wall while leading with 10 laps to go; Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked teammate Michael Waltrip; Casey Mears wrecked teammate Sterling Marlin; and Brian Vickers ruined his shot at his first-career victory when he caused an accident that collected teammate Jeff Gordon.

Vickers' accident with 21 laps to go wasn't even the worst of it for Gordon – sealer used to fill a crack in the track surface broke loose early in the race and punched a huge hole in his car's grill.

Gordon got it patched up and drove back to the front, where a three-car contingent from Hendrick Motorsports seemed to be in their own battle for the win.

But the Hendrick cars – Vickers, Gordon and Johnson – all ducked onto pit road for service under the green flag. When a caution came out three laps later, they dropped a lap down and the race changed dramatically.

A handful of cars that had been cruising around the middle of the pack were suddenly in contention for the win. They were still watching their rearview mirrors for the Hendrick cars until Vicker's accident eliminated two of them.

Racing resumed with 14 laps to go and Nemechek was in control – his crew chief was singing his praise in a live television interview – when Nemechek spun into the wall.

NASCAR stopped the race to clean the track and racing resumed 10 minutes later with Labonte in the lead with five laps to go. Edwards, who tangled with Jarrett late in the race, was in second.

Johnson believed he was in third, but NASCAR pushed him back to fourth behind Newman after a heated debate with Johnson's crew chief.

But they had little doubt that Johnson – who has won the past four points races at LMS – could work his way into the lead.

"I knew if I could get to Bobby's quarterpanel, I could beat him," Johnson said. "I got underneath Bobby on the white flag and I made a mistake, I got sideways. But I knew if I got to his outside, I'd beat him to the line."

Labonte, who started last in the 43-car field, was somewhat satisfied with finishing second because his car had been so bad early in the race.

"It really wasn't a great car, it just was a car that contended at the end for the win," Labonte said. "I just wish there was one less lap."

All the drivers had to contend with a new track surface after LMS officials used a diamond-grinding machine to smooth out the trademark bumps.

It was supposed to create competitive racing, but it instead seemed to play into many of the cautions.

The grinding gave the track more grip, and the sticky tires caused the pavement to pull apart in places. Track officials had to repair it before Saturday's practice sessions with a sealer, and the sealer started coming up about 100 laps into the race.

hat's when a chunk of it flew into the front of Gordon's car, opening up a gaping hole that forced him to make several stops to repair it.

rack president Humpy Wheeler said the cracking was not a result of the grinding process.

"The problem is not with the asphalt, it is with the crack sealer and that is not abnormal," Wheeler sad.

But other drivers grumbled that passing was too difficult on the new surface, and former race winner Matt Kenseth contended it played a part in the five-car accident started by Earnhardt.

Both Earnhardt and Waltrip were running in the top 10 when their night ended after Earnhardt ran into the back of Waltrip to start the accident that collected Kenseth and Terry Labonte, who hit the outside wall hard and was taken to a local hospital for further observations.

"It's just so hard to pass. Dale Jr. got by me while I was trying to pass Michael," Kenseth said. "The conditions are OK, but it's impossible to pass. Unless a miracle happens, the fastest car won't win the race."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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