Jimmie Johnson dominates
on way to the 600 win
Late-race flags keep it interesting
By DAVID POOLE
The Charlotte Observer
CONCORD, N.C. - In a race his rocket-fast No. 48 Chevrolet made as lopsided as a 3-0 soccer match, Jimmie Johnson had to sweat things out a bit before bringing home his second straight Coca-Cola 600 victory Sunday night.
There were only three yellow flags in the first 338 laps, but Johnson had to withstand three more after that. Finally, he endured a red-flag stoppage that forced him to hold off the challengers he'd buried all night long in a final three-lap green-flag dash to the checkered flag.
When it was finally over, Johnson was able to celebrate his near-record dominance in Nextel Cup racing's longest race in victory lane, completing a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the weekend's events at Lowe's Motor Speedway as the team, based just a mile or so away from the track, celebrates its 20th anniversary in stock-car racing. Kyle Busch won Saturday's Busch Series race.
Johnson led 334 of 400 laps - 501 of 600 miles. In 1967, Jim Paschal led 335 laps, and if that performance was anything like this one then it, too, was a good old country butt-kicking.
Johnson pulled away easily after the last restart, leaving a pack of cars behind him to battling for positions.
They were still fighting for them when Bobby Labonte's car slapped the outside wall in Turn 2 on the final lap, and when the caution car came out that froze the field. Michael Waltrip was credited with second, but the positions immediately behind the top two reviewed by NASCAR immediately after the race. Matt Kenseth was credited with third, with Jamie McMurray fourth and Elliott Sadler fifth.
"That car was so good," said Johnson, who became the first pole-winner to win a Nextel Cup race this season. "We stuck to our game plan all night long and we knew what we needed to do. It all worked out, and that was cool."
That game plan included a four-tire pit stop under yellow following Ryan Newman's run-in with the Turn 2 wall on Lap 368. On that caution, Jamie McMurray chose not to pit while Waltrip and Jeremy Mayfield changed just two tires.
Johnson was fifth on the restart on Lap 374, but didn't stay there long. His climb back to the top began with a daring pass between Robby Gordon's lapped car and Kasey Kahne's No. 9 Dodge in Turn 4 on Lap 376.
"I had some urgency there," Johnson said. "I knew I needed to get going and make quick work of the 9 (Kahne) and 19 (Mayfield) and get going."
He passed Waltrip for second on Lap 379 and grabbed the lead from McMurray on Lap 384. He seemed to be home free, but Newman's engine let go on Lap 393 and NASCAR stopped the cars on the backstretch on Lap 395 - just a lap before the red flag would not have been used to get a green-flag finish.
It didn't matter.
Last year, Johnson won a race shortened to 276 laps by rain. This time, it looked like nobody was going to be able to catch him if the cars had run 800 laps.
"I don't think anybody had anything for Jimmie tonight," McMurray said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought his way back to a sixth-place finish and held on, barely, to the lead in the season's standings. He's now five points ahead of Johnson. Kenseth is third, 111 back.
Johnson started first and got the early jump, pulling away from teammates Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers in the early going.
Gordon's Chevrolet and the one being driven by Tony Stewart appeared to be loose in the early going, with both losing ground steadily.
Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield and Casey Mears, meanwhile, were able to move the opposite way toward the front.
Johnson held the lead until Sadler passed him on Lap 54 in the No. 38 Ford.
Johnson grabbed the lead back five laps later as the leaders began their first round of pit stops in a race that remained under the green flag.
Sadler, Johnson and Waltrip were back out front when that cycle of stops ended. By Lap 72, however, Johnson had reclaimed the lead and continued to set a blistering pace. By Lap 100, only 14 cars remained on the lead lap and Johnson was less than a straightaway from putting Gordon a second lap down.
On Lap 114, Kevin Harvick was in 10th place - and his Chevrolet was also a lap down.
Gordon would eventually finish 30th, seven laps down.
By the time Johnson made his second pit stop on Lap 130, he was on a lap of his own. And to that point in the race, he'd been in a league of his own, too.
But because Sadler had stopped about five laps pitted earlier and had run those laps on new tires while Johnson kept going on older ones, when the second round of stops was over Sadler was leading by about three seconds.
Johnson erased that smartly, reclaiming the lead by Lap 146 with just 12 cars on the lead lap and the race still waiting to see its first yellow flag.
It came on Lap 160, when rookie Johnny Sauter spun between turns 1 and 2 and hit the outside wall. That came as a huge break for the entire field, of course, but it was particularly key for Mark Martin. He'd had a tire problem early on, and was forced to make a stop that had him off-sequence with the field. He was on the lead lap when the yellow came out, so that got him back in sync. But later, Martin lost several laps on pit road as his team changed out the ignition box after it went bad.
Sadler got off pit road first for the restart on Lap 167. Johnson was second, but he got a scare in Turn 2 when he tried to go inside and got hooked by Jimmy Spencer's lapped car. Johnson's Chevy wobbled, but he gained control and held onto second.
Johnson reclaimed the lead by Lap 175, passing Sadler down the backstretch, and began pulling away again. The only car ahead of him was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who'd been a lap down on the restart and managed to get out in front by himself, hoping to get another yellow. It didn't come in time, though, as Johnson put the No. 8 a lap down again on Lap 214.
Just as the field completed a round of pit stops, debris in Turn 3 produced the second yellow. The timing was good for Earnhardt Jr., who was the first car a lap down and therefore got the free pass allowing him to make that one up.
Johnson and Sadler were still up front, where they'd been all night, when the green flew on Lap 244. But eventually, it seemed they were about to finally get some company as rookie Kasey Kahne began to move in. Kahne passed Bobby Labonte for third on Lap 284, then moved into second on Lap 290.
Kahne took the lead when Johnson and Sadler pitted on Lap 296 during yet another round of green-flag stops. But when the stops had cycled through, Johnson was back out front by nearly four seconds with Kahne and his Evernham motorsports teammate Jeremy Mayfield in pursuit. Sadler had slipped to fifth, behind the front three and Jamie McMurray.
Kahne was cutting into Johnson's lead when, on Lap 327, John Andretti was sent spinning through the infield grass in the frontstretch after getting rapped in the rear end by Ryan Newman. That gave the field a chance to make pit stops under just the yellow.
Johnson won the race off pit road and pulled away on the restart, but a caution for debris four laps later was followed by another on Lap 368 for the crash in Turn 2 that set up what drama there was on a night when Johnson was so dominant.