Johnson reclaims lead late to repeat in Coca-Cola 600

In fifth on Lap 373, he flies to front, tops Waltrip

Auto Racing

May 31, 2004|By George Diaz | George Diaz,ORLANDO SENTINEL

CONCORD, N.C. - To even things out for the boys in the back of the pack trying to chase down Jimmie Johnson, we suggest a few changes.

Rename Lowe's Motor Speedway. Force Johnson to ditch Lowe's as a sponsor. Make him move to Manhattan to keep teammate Jeff Gordon company.

Anything to loosen Johnson's grip on this 1.5-mile piece of NASCAR country.

Johnson won last night's Coca-Cola 600 in a dominating performance before an estimated 170,000 spectators. Johnson didn't give them much to rant or rave about (unless they had him in the betting pool). He led 334 of 400 laps in NASCAR's most grueling race of the season - 600 miles - to make quick work of anybody else.

And why not?

Johnson, going out last among 52 cars trying to make the field in qualifying on Thursday, ran 187.052 mph to win the pole and set a track qualifying record. He won a rain-shortened Coca-Cola race last season, too. And he won the all-star event here last season, too. Despite a late caution and a red-flag restart, the rest of the field never stood a chance last night

"That car was so good," Johnson said after his eighth career win. "How can you beat this?"

The first piece of intrigue developed shortly after Ryan Newman went spinning on Turn 2, bringing out the fifth and final caution of the night. Crew chief Chad Knaus brought Johnson into pit road to take four tires. Jamie McMurray chose not to pit, reshuffling the running order to give McMurray the lead and dropping Johnson to fifth.

After the green flag on Lap 373, Johnson made a charge that defined his night of brilliance.

He spilt Robby Gordon and Kasey Kahne on Turn 4 on Lap 376, caught Michael Waltrip on Lap 379 and stayed close to McMurray until passing him on the back straightaway on Lap 383.

"I had some urgency," Johnson said. "I needed to make quick work of the nine [Kahne] and 19 [McMurray] and get going."

It seemed like a done deal until Newman had issues again - his engine blew up and went up in smoke - forcing a red-flag restart with Johnson only 10 miles from victory.

"Oh, man, we have to do it again!" said Gary Johnson, Jimmie's father.

It only set the celebration back a few minutes.

After the single-file restart following a five-minute delay, Johnson blew away from everybody in the last four laps. The race ended under caution when Bobby Labonte hit the wall.

Waltrip finished second, followed by Matt Kenseth, McMurray and Elliott Sadler.

Johnson finished one lap short of the track record for laps led, set by Jim Paschal in 1967. Sadler was second in laps led, with 41.

"This is Jimmie's track," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "They were in another world tonight."

NOTE: Robbie Gordon failed in his attempt to complete a racing double when the Indianapolis 500 was stopped by rain after only 27 laps earlier in the day. With the start of the NASCAR race approaching, Gordon had to leave Indy and backup driver Jaques Lazier took the wheel. The car dropped out after only 88 laps with a mechanical failure, and Gordon was credited with 29th. At Lowe's, he finished three laps down in 20th.

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

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