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Johnson first to record 600 three-peat

5/30/2005

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 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."