Johnson wins the last Southern 500 at Darlington

Driver Insider
Posted Nov 15, 2004

Jimmy Johnson won the last Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway that ended under the lights. Johnson has won four out of the last five races giving him eight wins for the year. More than any driver this year.

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 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

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 Edwards.

``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 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.

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.


Mountain Dew Southern 500 Results

Nextel Chase Standings




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