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 the momentum going into next Sunday's finale at
``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
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 Lap 359. Then he pulled away to his 14th career win
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
``If we're going to win this championship, we
can't make these kind of mistakes,'' Gordon said.
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
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.
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.
Nextel Chase Standings