Quick pit stop proves winner for Johnson

B. Labonte loses the lead coming out of pits to finish 2nd in Dodge Dealers 400

Auto Racing

March 22, 2004|By George Diaz | George Diaz,ORLANDO SENTINEL

DARLINGTON, S.C. - After more than three hours and 289 laps of hard racing, yesterday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race became a perfunctory four-lap spin for Jimmie Johnson and Bobby Labonte.

Advantage, Johnson.

Johnson, who just sneaked by Labonte to snatch the lead after the final pit stop, maintained his advantage after a final caution to win the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, marking his first victory at Darlington Raceway.

"If it could have gone without a caution at the end, we were right on," Labonte said. "When you're making qualifying laps at the end, it was kind of difficult."

Labonte was the leader on Darlington's 1.366-mile oval when Kyle Petty's engine blew up, sending smoke billowing across the track and bringing out a caution with 19 laps left.

Johnson came into the pits third, but after a blistering 12.5- second stop, he nipped Labonte for the lead before the restart with only 10 laps remaining in the 293-lap run. Johnson increased his lead to two car lengths before taking the checkered flag. After making a strong run at the restart, Labonte never really had a clean shot at Johnson.

"I wanted a caution to come because with the pit stops we were having, we'd have a shot to win the race," Johnson said.

It was Johnson's seventh career NASCAR Cup victory in 80 starts and first since winning at New Hampshire in September 2003.

The final caution came out shortly after the restart when Tony Stewart tapped Kasey Kahne from behind, sending Kahne's Dodge sliding along turns 3 and 4.

"I kind of went low to miss Brendan Gaughan and Tony got to the outside to the back of my car," Kahne said.

Under beautiful blue skies, fans got a peek at a typical NASCAR afternoon of racing, meaning one unsightly wreck and a touch of controversy.

Early in the race, Stewart nipped field-filler Andy Hillenburg - who was racing an estimated 20 to 30 mph slower than the leaders - causing him to spin out along turn 1. Jeff Gordon's Chevy rammed into Hillenburg's Ford head-on, ending the day for both drivers. Neither driver was hurt.

"I haven't taken a hit like that possibly ever - certainly not a head-on shot," Gordon said. "But the HANS device did its job thankfully. I don't know what happened with Andy getting spun, but there are a bunch of cars out there that do not belong out there. They are way off the pace and they're in the way.

"This is the Nextel Cup Series, man. This is the best of the best. And we don't need cars that are out there making a qualifying attempt and make the race."

Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and winner of two races this season, also had a rough afternoon, finishing 31st. Kenseth was tagged by NASCAR officials with a one-lap penalty for passing cars under the caution flag.

"I don't really know what happened," crew chief Robbie Reiser said. "I can't give you a straight answer. ... It's their rules. We have to play by them."

Ryan Newman, who had to make up a lost lap after being penalized for hitting a marker cone while entering the pits early in the race, came back to finish third.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. also had to make up a lap and struggled with handling throughout the race. He still managed a 10th-place finish and jumped past Stewart into second in the standings, trailing leader Kenseth by 21 points.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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