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Johnson’s First Win Is a Genuine Gasser

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kurt Busch showed everybody else that the place to run Sunday in the Winston Cup stock car race at California Speedway was out front.

Then rookie Chevy driver Jimmie Johnson took that knowledge, turned it against Busch as two of NASCAR’s hottest young guns turned the NAPA Auto Parts 500-miler into a 28-mile trophy dash, and stole the victory--his first in only 13 tries--right out from under the spoiler on Busch’s Ford.

Johnson, an El Cajon native now living in Mooresville, N.C., beat Busch out of the pits on the last stop of the race after taking on gasoline only--Busch’s crew changed his right-side tires besides refueling--then beat the Las Vegas driver on the track as well, holding off Busch in a gripping finish to what had been largely a follow-the-leader race before a crowd estimated at 120,000.

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“We got caught by taking two tires,” a surprised and disappointed Busch said. “I never would have thought I’d be beaten by gas only.”

It hadn’t occurred to Johnson, either, but once he got the word from his crew chief, Chad Knaus, that that was the plan, he fell in love with it.

“I remembered a pit stop earlier in the race when a few cars had done that and it worked out great for them,” he said. “They got some track position and were able to do something. So when Chad made the decision, I smiled because I knew what it was going to do for us. It was going to get us out in front. I was just hoping that Kurt wasn’t going to do the same thing.”

No chance.

“We had never taken gas only,” Busch said. “We never did think of the factor of taking gas only. It’s tough to swallow, but we’re gonna learn from it.”

Even Knaus wasn’t sure of his decision.

“Our spotter on the other side of the track was telling us that everybody else was taking two tires,” he said. “Jimmie was coming down pit road and asking what we were going to do. I made a snap decision and said, ‘Fuel only.’

“As soon as I did, I said to [team owner Rick Hendrick], ‘Let me out of here. I’m going to throw up.’”

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Busch, who drives for Jack Rousch, the Ford guru who nearly was killed in a light-plane crash last weekend in Alabama, had hoped to present his recuperating car owner a victory and worked hard at catching the fleeing Johnson, but....

“It’s very difficult to pick up ground on a race car with 30 laps to go for the win,” he said. “When I passed [Ricky Rudd, moving into second place with three laps left] I found something on the track.... I wish I would have found it four laps earlier. We might have been able to mess with [Johnson].”

Had it not been for a late-race accident involving the Chevrolets of Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., it might well have been Busch, who led for 102 laps, holding off Johnson for the victory.

They were dueling for the lead, with Busch getting the better of it, when Harvick’s car blew a tire coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 229 of the 250-lap race over the two-mile, D-shaped track. Harvick’s car piled into the rear of Earnhardt’s, which spun, then climbed the track and hit hard against the outside wall.

Neither driver was seriously injured--Earnhardt was taken to the infield emergency unit, then left, saying he had a sore ankle--but the caution flag came out and the pace of the race changed.

When the pits opened, five laps later, the leaders all ducked in, leaving Bill Elliott’s Dodge on the track and in the lead. Busch was first in but third out, behind Johnson and Rudd, who also had put right-side rubber on his Ford.

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They all fell in behind Elliott, then Johnson and Rudd blew by him when the green flag flew on Lap 237.

Busch needed two laps to get by Elliott, then needed eight more to get past Rudd, and by then, there were only four left. Not enough.

“We had a dominant car but we just didn’t have a lucky enough pit strategy at the end,” Busch said. “It’s .... tough to swallow.”

Not for Johnson, who celebrated by doing doughnuts afterward, blowing his car’s engine and transmission in the process.

“There was an awful lot of oil in Victory Lane,” he said, sheepishly.

“It was an incredible day for us,” he added. “It’s amazing how long these races are and how much can go on. We had the car to beat and led for a while and I thought maybe this was going to be our day.

“Then the next set of tires we put on, we were extremely loose. It took two or three tries to get the car tightened back up. During that time, my emotions were a little low and I thought, OK, we’d maybe get a top-five finish.

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“The [second-to-last] pit stop, we tightened the car up and [it] came to life. I ran down the pack in front of us and was racing Kurt real hard before the caution came out.”

Although the victory was Johnson’s first, the former motocross and off-road racer already had enjoyed remarkable success as four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s protege. He sat on the pole for the Daytona 500 in February, only his fourth Winston Cup race, then did it again last weekend at Talladega, NASCAR’s other high-banked superspeedway. In nine previous races this season, he had finished in the top 10 six times, and his victory here moved him from sixth to fifth in the season standings.

Gordon, co-owner with Hendrick, engulfed Johnson in a bear hug at Victory Lane and said, “You rock! I guess we hired the right guy.”

Later he said, “I never doubted him. I drove against him in the Busch series and ... it looked to me that he was getting an awful lot out of the cars he was driving. So I knew if you put him in good race cars in Winston Cup, he’d do a great job over here too. You’ve got to have the right people behind you and the right car underneath you [but you’ve also] got to have the right driver in the seat, and he’s certainly the right guy. This is just the first step.”

Gordon, defending Winston Cup champion, finished 16th and said he didn’t know until after he’d finished that Johnson had won.

“I had enough guys running over me those last laps to keep me very busy,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

*--* The Finish Top five finishers of the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway: DRIVER CAR MONEY 1 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet $176,750 2 Kurt Busch Ford $140,075 3 Ricky Rudd Ford $148,117 4 Bill Elliott Dodge $125,856 5 Mark Martin Ford $110,458

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