Johnson holds off J. Gordon with help

Newman 2nd in Cup race at Martinsville

October 22, 2007|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,Tribune Publishing newspapers

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson got help holding off Jeff Gordon yesterday in a rematch of teammates from a source roaring out of the blue: Ryan Newman, who hasn't won a Nextel Cup race in more than two years.

Then it was all Johnson could do to hold off Newman in a green-white-checkered overtime finish of the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, while Gordon finished third.

Johnson, with his seventh win this season, shaved Gordon's lead in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup by 15 points to 53, with four races remaining.

Johnson and Gordon had dueled to a 1-2 finish here in April, and for most of yesterday's race they slugged it out again. Gordon led 168 of the 506 laps, and Johnson led 147. But at the end, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet faded just as Johnson's began working to perfection.

Johnson knew there'd be no repeat duel with his mentor when Newman slipped past Gordon into second place with seven of the regulation 500 laps left.

"When Newman got by him, I was able to get away, and I pulled away from him," Johnson said of Gordon. "I was excited to see that because of the points. But then I'm like, `Ooh, Ryan's hungry. He hasn't won in a while, and he's going to be very aggressive if we have another caution.' "

Sure enough, another one came out, a track-record 20th for the day, with four laps left in regulation. The cleanup forced the race into overtime, and at that point "I was more worried about the 12 [Newman] than the 24 [Gordon]," Johnson said.

On that final restart, "I had a shot at him," said Newman, who hasn't won since September 2005. "I had my nose at his left rear tire at the start-finish line taking the white flag" of the overtime.

But David Ragan spun during the overtime to bring out the 21st caution and freeze the field in Johnson's favor, and "when the yellow came out, there was a lot of dejection that it was over," Newman said.

The win made Johnson the first driver to win three straight races at Martinsville since Rusty Wallace in 1994-1995. And it was Johnson's fourth at the 526 of a mile track, the smallest on the Cup tour.

"He's Mr. Martinsville if you ask me," said Gordon, who has won at the track seven times. "I mean, that guy is unbelievable here."

Gordon had come into the race on a two-win streak, with a 68-point lead over Johnson, and was hoping for some friendly payback for Johnson's holding him off here in April. Johnson had been feeling a bit down in their championship duel.

"In the end Jeff came over to Victory Lane and congratulated me," Johnson said. "The last two weeks, he won and my bottom lip was dragging the ground so bad I couldn't even make it over to Victory Lane to congratulate him. And then today the guy comes over and congratulates me. He's certainly a class act."

The two tightened their stranglehold on the Chase. Clint Bowyer, third in the playoff standings, finished ninth yesterday and dropped 115 points behind leader Gordon. Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, fourth in the standings, finished 13th and plummeted to an all-but-hopeless 249 points behind Gordon.

So Bowyer is now the only non-Hendrick driver with any realistic shot at winning the championship.

"Those guys are tough," Newman said of the Hendrick team. "At one point, they were the top three [in Sunday's race, including teammate Kyle Busch, who wound up fourth]. You think, `Man, I'm going to run fourth today at best.' So it's nice to be able to bounce back and do a little hard racing and come in second."

Ed Hinton writes for Tribune Publishing newspapers.

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