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Jimmie Johnson! And the Southern 500 makes it an even 200 tour wins for car owner Rick Hendrick

Jimmie Johnson! And the Southern 500 makes it an even 200 tour wins for car owner Rick Hendrick

Jimmie Johnson's crew celebrates as Johnson raises a cloud of smoke after winning the Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Jimmie Johnson won a cat-and-mouse game with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch down the stretch, taking the Southern 500 in front of a near sellout crowd of some 60,000 at legendary Darlington Raceway.
   Johnson's victory, his first since last October, was the 200th NASCAR Cup victory for team owner Rick Hendrick, and the breakthrough comes after a relatively long drought for the four-team Hendrick operation.
   Johnson and Greg Biffle dominated the four-hour race, which was rather uneventful, by Darlington standards. The action really didn't get fierce until the final 50 laps – 65 miles.
   "Gotta love that man," Johnson said in victory lane. "We just won him 200, and he says 'Let's go for 250.'"
   The victory was Johnson's 56th since joining the tour in late 2001.
   In all Hendrick has sent 15 different drivers to victory lane at 25 different tracks since 1984.
   Fuel mileage was a factor at the end. "There was a lot of drama," Johnson said. "I hoped I'd save enough, and I did. We were saving a lot of fuel those last 25 to 30 laps."
   Stewart said he had fuel issues in the final miles. He was on the inside of the front row for the final restart with two laps to go, Johnson the leader picking the outside lane. Johnson got a good jump, and Stewart faded, giving Hamlin second.

  Team owner Rick Hendrick gives Jimmie Johnson a victory hug at Darlington Raceway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "The fuel pressure light was blinking when we got one-to-go, and it laid down all the way down the frontstretch and cost us second," Stewart said.
   The first two hours went virtually caution-free, except for three debris cautions. However the last half hour had several yellows for spins, as drivers became clearly more aggressive.
   The last yellow, with seven laps to go, came for an altercation between Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, and both wound up in the wall, and the two crews were apparently not very happy with each other. Some crewmen got into a shoving match after the race on pit road, and a NASCAR official got caught up in the melee. Any penalties NASCAR said wouldn't be determined until Tuesday.
   Busch appeared to get loose off the fourth turn, and Newman got tagged in the rear when he slowed to avoid him.
   Then on pit road after the race Busch ran into Newman; the two cars were pitted next to each other.
   NASCAR's Robin Pemberton said he was still looking at video and talking with the men involved. "We haven't talked with Kurt; we have talked with Ryan, and he said he'd talked with Kurt and Kurt said he didn't mean to hit him, that he was taking his helmet off and just ran into the back of him.
    "It was a long, hot night, and tempers were flaring."

   After so many weeks of dry, emotionless racing, the stock car tour finally picked up some steam: Kurt Busch finally gives the NASCAR tour some fire, here rather angry with Ryan Newman after a late race crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  One of the celebrities of the night was rookie Danica Patrick, who finished the race, six laps down, in 31st.
   Jeff Gordon, incredibly, had another night of bad luck, in what has been a spring filled with bad luck. He cut down two tires, and his crew then pulled him behind the wall to try to figure out just what the problem was.
    Gordon finished 35th. Gordon, who has had cars strong enough and fast enough to win this year, now has a stunning finishing record of 40th, 8th, 12th, 35th, 26th, 14th, 4th, 21st, 23rd, 33rd and 35th.
   If there is any consolation for the four-time champ, Brad Keselowski exactly one year ago was even further behind in the standings and yet not only made the playoffs but made a hard run at the Sprint Cup title.

   Things got heated on pit road between the crews of Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman...and a NASCAR official wound up on the hood of a car. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   On the final restart Johnson had Denny Hamlin right behind him at the green, and Stewart had Busch, Hamlin's teammate, right behind him. It was a replay of Friday night's Nationwide finish, in a sense; Friday Elliott Sadler was the leader on the last restart but got pushed a bit too hard by Joey Logano, and Sadler crashed.
    What was Hamlin thinking Saturday night at the final green? "I was trying to time the restart so I could stay on his bumper and push him," Hamlin said of Johnson. "But I've got a problem spinning my tires on restarts. I've got to figure out how to get better on restarts; if that involves 'priming' the tires on the backstretch before we go green….
  "Still we got a good restart, started fourth and ended up second.
   "The high line seemed like it was the best line to take on these restarts.
    "It's tough – these cars are not built to go in a straight line.
    "I didn't really think Tony and Kyle really could do anything. When you're on the inside like that, it's so tricky getting into turn one that I didn't think they really had a chance. The inside guy gets too loose.
    "When I got into turn one on the outside of Tony, well, the guy on the inside is at the mercy of the guy on the outside."


   Danica Patrick did better than expected perhaps. She ran all four hours, didn't make any glaring mistakes. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    For Stewart the finish was a measure of how strong his team is, because midway through the race his car was off the pace. Crew chief Steve Addington not only fixed the car but helped get Stewart back in position to challenge for the win. Stewart did have some clutch and transmission issues but he said it only hampered him on pit road, not on restarts. "I was really proud of Steve," Stewart said. "That's the never-give-up attitude that helped us win the championship."
    And Stewart disagreed with Hamlin that the guy on the inside is at a decided disadvantage on restarts: "No, not necessarily. The restart before that, Jimmie actually spun the tires, and we had a shot at him into turn one.
   "And on that last restart I figured I had a shot at it if he spun the tires again.
    "But then the fuel started sputtering coming off turn four (just before the final green), and we didn't get fuel to the pickup until we got down into turn one.
    "We actually lost fuel pressure with one to go; that's why we were down on the apron, trying to get it to pick up."

    Tires were a question over the weekend but during the race they appeared to be a non-issue.
   "Track position once again was king," Hamlin said.
   "It will take another five years for tire wear to become more of a factor than track position, unless Goodyear comes with a tire that wears more.
    "It still isn't wearing the tires as much as it should."

   Jimmie Johnson: 56 tour wins now (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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