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Rick Hendrick's guys tear up another one, Jeff Gordon this time, but Jimmie Johnson rallies to win his 150

  Now that's a close finish, Jimmie Johnson (48) edging Kevin Harvick to win the first 150-miler Thursday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Gee, Jimmie Johnson, eh?
   Surprise, surprise.
   Well, Johnson did make a game of it, at least.
   He started in the back of the pack for Thursday's first Daytona 500 150-miler in a backup car, after his primary car got caught up in a crash in practice here Wednesday.
   Then crew chief Chad Knaus gambled on not pitting for tires during the final round of pit stops. So Johnson had to finish on worn tires, battling rivals on new rubber.
    Still Johnson, with a push from Kyle Busch, managed to hold off teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer and win a photofinish over Harvick, in one of the closest finishes ever at Daytona.
    "We were going to go for the win," Knaus said. "What's the fun in starting the 500 12th or 15th.
   "This win says volumes about how good this car is.
   "As much track time as you have here, you'd better have a lot of bullets in your gun."
   Proving the point, again, Jeff Gordon needing to go to a backup car for Daytona 500, after getting caught up in a Thursday crash.
   "I don't win a lot on plate tracks, and I'm still searching....so this was a big step forward," Johnson said.
   Johnson is racing his Shootout car, but said the 500 primary torn up Wednesday was a better one. Chevy teams swept five of the top-six spots; AJ Allmendinger had the best finish for Ford, seventh. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, who ran so strong in Saturday's Shootout, finished 13th and 11th.

    Johnson, who didn't do a burnout, may have been surprised at Knaus' no-tire call, when everyone else pitted. But he was cool with it: "If we were good on fuel, I was willing to take the chance. Track position was everything.
    "I could find my way up to the top five or six (during the race up till then), but I could get any further because the cars were so equal. So I was in favor of the call.
    "When they dropped the green flag, I couldn't get going like I wanted to. So I was a little concerned about how the next four laps were going to be.
    "I stayed committed to the bottom. I got a lot of big pushes from behind and hung on to it.
    "Man, this thing was so loose with old tires and those guys pushing from behind.
    "I thought I was going to end up in the fence at the finishline. I had a push from behind and the side drafting that was going on had the car sideways coming to the finish."
    Most of the 500 starting lineup was set before Thursday's two 150s; the men making the 500 based on their runs in the first 150 were Max Papis and Michael McDowell.
    Biffle was not pleased with Papis' restart for the four-lap shootout:  "If he had been in the outside lane on that last restart, we certainly would have had a shot at the win," Biffle said.  "He's a great driver, but he spun his tires, and continued to kind of spin them all the way down...couldn't get traction." Papis and Johnson were the only two men not pitting, to keep track position; so their tires were worn. 
     "I was trying to push him...and I could have hung him out to dry, but decided to stay behind him and help get him going," Biffle said. "Hopefully he made it in.
    "But I knew at that point I probably wasn't going to win. So two or three starting spots for me wasn't going to make or break my season.
    "So I said 'I'll just stay in line and not try to cause a big fiasco three-wide going.'"
   Considering how many men have been forced to unload backup cars, that was probably a good move. In fact Biffle had to run a backup in the Shootout, after Friday's crash during practice. Biffle also crashed in Saturday's Shootout.
   This time it was Jeff Gordon, the man who helped  Biffle crash Saturday, who had to go to a 500 backup, after getting caught up in a late accident Thursday.
    "I'm real happy with the race; the car drove well," Biffle said of the 150. "And I while I wasn't happy with the outcome, I was pretty happy overall with how it handled."
   Harvick, who has a knack of winning tight ones at this track, "knew I was in trouble. I knew I was on the right side with Mark Martin (in 2007), and I knew I was in trouble on this one because I was ahead of him (Johnson) about halfway through the short-chute, with the side draft.Hey, you win some, you lose some; all you can ask for is a chance."

                   Results of the first 150-mile qualifier for Sunday's Daytona 500


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