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Jamie wins Charlotte...and the NASCAR championship is now down to three: Johnson, Hamlin & Harvick

  Jamie McMurray! Again! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   Jamie McMurray, a big-game player all season for Chip Ganassi, added to his career-best season with a sprint to victory in Saturday night's Charlotte Bank of America 500, leaving Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson duking it out in his wake for second.
    So McMurray, one of the best drivers not in the championship chase, has now added Charlotte to big wins in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis' Brickyard 400, and strong runs in several other major events.

   McMurray was quick to dedicate the win to Shane Hmiel, seriously injured in a USAC crash at Terre Haute, Ind., last weekend: "Our whole team is thinking about Shane Hmiel. He's recovering from a bad accident. I really wish Steve Hmiel (Shane's father) could have been here; he's a really key part of our team (as competition boss)."
   Hmiel's medical progress can be followed here:  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Shane-Hmiel-Road-to-Recovery/156856564346848
    The story of the night, on the championship chase side of things, was more title challengers self-destructing: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart are now probably all but out of it.
   And heading this week to Martinsville Speedway for Round Six of the 10-race chase it looks like the title fight is down to Johnson versus Denny Hamlin versus Kevin Harvick. Gordon, who started from the pole, was never a factor, had electrical problems, finished 23rd, and is now 156 points down. Busch and Tony Stewart (21st, after winning California just a week ago) are both now down 177.
   And Johnson's recovery from an early spin that left him deep in the pack has to be demoralizing for his rivals, who came into the chase sensing Johnson was 'vulnerable' in this bid for a record-breaking fifth straight NASCAR title.
   Neither Hamlin (fourth) or Harvick (eighth) had anything for McMurray, Johnson or Busch.


    Jamie McMurray at the finish line, in a blur (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Busch dominated most of the 3-1/2-hour race, though he had throttle problems early and had to cut off his engine to keep the car under control, until the problem, whatever it was, cleared up.
   But for the end-game Busch was just a little off. And when McMurray got around Busch on the final restart, with 30 miles to go, Busch wound up dueling with Johnson for second.
   That final yellow? None of the front-runners pitted, but the restart – normally one of Busch's strong points – gave McMurray the opening he needed, and he zipped away.
    "Don't know what the caution was for," Busch groused. "I guess a mouse ran across the track.
    "Then on the restart I just couldn't stay with Jamie.
    "Just didn't have it at the end..."
   And Busch was clearly not happy. A blown engine at California just six days earlier had ended his title hopes. And his comments Saturday night here to his crew much of the night were pointedly critical, though afterwards he pointed the finger at himself.
   "Nobody can put it in perspective for me," Busch said dejectedly. "Had the best car all night, and just gave it away. Sorry to all the guys; it's my job to get a win for these guys, and evidently I didn't make the right adjustments."
   Teammate Hamlin, whose California engine had been on the verge of blowing, never really got on track here. And his performances in the first five chase races have been rather lackluster, more defensive efforts than anything else, and he's conceded that. But Martinsville is one of his best tracks....where he won in the spring. So his championship hopes may well rest on getting back in gear there.
   Hamlin, who wound up with his best finish here, said of Johnson "We kept him in our sights, but that's all we  could do. We were a little off."
   Johnson continues to amaze. He spun out early, trying to pass Bobby Labonte on the outside, which seemed unusually slick early in the race.
   "Hate I spun out....but glad I didn't hit anything, and we never gave up, because we knew the track would come to us," Johnson said.
    Johnson rallied and got back in the hunt, and in the final 30 miles Johnson was pressing Busch very hard for second. Busch said he wasn't sure he could hold him off, though he did.
   "I love racing with Kyle," Johnson said. "I know we'll race clean. And it was good, hard racing.
   "The finish was great, but the first part of the race was terrible. I was saying 'I don't know if we can win, I don't know if we can finish top-five, but if we keep our composure we'll be all right.
   "I hope this performance leads us to a championship, and that we can look back and say Charlotte was a key for us.
   "Earlier in the year we would have gotten rattled. But this time we stayed cool and focused."


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