Johnson drives like veteran, edges Martin in Heroes 400

Rookie moves into second in Winston Cup standings

Auto Racing

September 23, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - Jimmie Johnson doesn't like being a Winston Cup rookie. But he's not letting that stand in his way as he pursues a series championship.

Yesterday in the MBNA All-American Heroes 400 at Dover International Speedway, Johnson belied his lack of seasoning as he and his Lowe's Chevrolet held off Mark Martin's Viagra Ford to win his third race of the season, tying Tony Stewart's rookie record.

He became the eighth driver to sweep the two races at this track in a single season and moved into second in the points race.

And yet, Johnson said he would trade his youth for a little more experience.

"In a heartbeat," he said, taking a big bite out of a hero sandwich. "I have had a great year, and I have all the things necessary to win races and championships. But experience is what matters on the racetrack so much. I'd gladly give up some years for some experience."

Still, Johnson has gained experience this season. He learned early on not to overrace on new tires, and when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was dominating this race over the first 150 miles, leading 116 laps, Johnson backed off, biding his time.

"I just didn't want to wear out the front right," he said. "I realized we were running like we were in qualifying [very fast] mode, and I just decided to wait and see where things were after 300 laps and go from there."

By the end of the day, it was quite a dominating performance. Johnson led a race-high 170 laps, including the last 80, as he averaged 120.805 mph and held off Martin at the finish line by .535 of a second.

"We could get to him, but we'd lose the front end when we got behind him," said Martin, who took over the Winston Cup points lead last week. "I put us in a pitiful hole with a dumb qualifying effort Saturday, and today it took us the whole race to catch up.

"At the end, [Johnson] was the fastest car, and we were pretty good. I tried pretty hard - I really wanted to win real bad - and when I got to him, I should have been more patient. I hadn't been behind a car all day that I couldn't get by quickly. But I couldn't overhaul him. I guess you'd say we met our match."

Coming into this race, Martin held a six-point lead over Sterling Marlin. Yesterday, Martin stretched the lead to 30, but it was Johnson who moved into second place, while Marlin struggled to a 21st-place finish and dropped to fourth.

"That's all we could do," Marlin said matter-of-factly of the performance in his Coors Light Dodge. "We had the wrong gear, the wrong springs, the wrong shocks, the wrong car. We had the right beer [mustering a smile for his sponsor], but other than that, we got stomped. I think [the race in] Kansas will be good for us. We always seem to struggle here at Dover."

Tony Stewart finished fifth and moved into third place. Jeff Gordon remained fifth in the points chase, but fell 190 points back. He got caught up in a crash on the 67th lap and finished 37th, 181 laps behind.

"There are times when you can have a day like this and you can afford it," Gordon said. "But then you look at Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin 1-2 up there. That was a huge day for them and a devastating day for us. We've got some tracks coming up where we can do some good things, but we've got to qualify better and we've got to get up there and really put some pressure on."

Gordon hasn't had a lot of luck this season, but his teammate Johnson has. He had several close calls yesterday but came out of all of them unscathed. One of the most difficult came as he closed in on Jeff Green and Earnhardt around Lap 268.

Earnhardt had been the class of the field early on, but then bad handling set in. He told his crew his car was "bobbling" up the track through the corners, and slowly he began falling back into the field.

"By the time I got to those guys [Green and Earnhardt], I think they were pretty mad at each other," said Johnson, who needed several laps before he finally made the pass on Lap 271. "They were really banging on each other and I was trying everything to get by and then Junior started beating on me. I don't know what I did, but I finally got past."

Earnhardt went to pit road a few laps later and got caught there when a caution flag came out. All of his troubles wound up costing him four laps.

Johnson set sail for the finish, but then he looked in his mirror and there was Martin.

"He was so close, I couldn't see his hood, only his windshield," Johnson said. "Our cars were all so equal. It was a matter of being out in front and my team got me out there and I was able to hang on.

"I didn't stay calm in that situation. I'm still shaking. Watching Mark close and only seeing his windshield. I tried to remember to just hit my marks and everything would be all right."

It was and now he is in hot pursuit of the title.

Driven at Dover

NASCAR drivers who have swept both Winston Cup races in same year at Dover:

David Pearson 1973

Bobby Allison 1983

Bill Elliott 1988

Dale Earnhardt 1989

Rusty Wallace 1994

Jeff Gordon 1996

Tony Stewart 2000

Jimmie Johnson 2002

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