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Johnson Nears Top With Win

From Associated Press

Jimmie Johnson has fought through mistakes, mechanical failures and the despair of losing friends in a plane crash to charge back into NASCAR’s closest championship battle ever.

He received some unexpected help Sunday from teammate Jeff Gordon, whose crew made an uncharacteristic mistake on pit lane. Johnson took advantage of the opportunity to win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and move within easy reach of Nextel Cup points leader Kurt Busch with one race remaining.

Johnson dominated most of the 26-race regular season, but lost a big lead when his No. 48 Chevrolet team started to experiment with new parts. He then started the new 10-man, 10-race playoff-style championship poorly, falling to ninth place, 247 points behind leader Busch after the first four races of the Chase for the Cup.

But four victories in the last five races, combined with a sixth-place finish last week at Phoenix, have given the third-year Cup driver momentum going into next Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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“I can’t believe it,” said Johnson, who has dedicated his season to the 10 people killed in an Oct. 24 crash of a team plane. “Fighting our way back in this championship with what took place with the airplane and Hendrick Motorsports, I just can’t believe it.”

The race restarted with 18 laps to go in the 367-lap event and Johnson, in third, passed Kasey Kahne for second place on Lap 352 and took the lead from Jamie McMurray on 359. Then he pulled away to his 14th career win.

Johnson, who beat Mark Martin to the finish line by 0.959-seconds or about six car-lengths, also won the race in March on Darlington’s tough 1.366-mile oval. Gordon led a race-high 155 laps. Johnson led 124.

Gordon, a six-time Darlington winner, appeared on the way to an easy victory, dominating the second half of the race until he pitted on Lap 337 during another caution period. His car came down on an air hose, costing him precious time and the four-time series champion, leading coming entering pit road, came out sixth.

He charged to the end but couldn’t catch Johnson or Martin. McMurray finished fourth, followed by Kahne, Busch and rookie Carl Edwards.

“If we’re going to win this championship, we can’t make these kind of mistakes,” Gordon said. “We made a mistake and it cost the win and a lot of momentum going to Homestead.”

Heading to the finale, Busch, who came into Sunday’s race leading Gordon by 41 points, leads Johnson by 18 and Gordon by 21. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had to pit late in the race to change a battery, finished 11th and trails by 72 points, with Martin 82 behind.

The Southern 500, traditionally run on Labor Day weekend, was moved to November when NASCAR gave the holiday date to newer, bigger California Speedway. Darlington, which holds only about 60,000 spectators, will lose the second event to Texas Motor Speedway next year and will have only a May race.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Point Standings

Nextel Cup series point standings with one race to go (Sunday, Ford 400 at Homestead, Fla.):

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1. Kurt Busch...6,346

2. Jimmie Johnson...6,328

3. Jeff Gordon...6,325

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr....6,274

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5. Mark Martin...6,264

6. Tony Stewart...6,161

7. Ryan Newman...6,102

8. Matt Kenseth...5,963

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8. Elliott Sadler...5,963

10. Jeremy Mayfield...5,942

Point breakdown: How points were awarded in NASCAR Nextel Cup races: Drivers who lead at least one lap during a race are awarded five bonus points, and the driver who leads the most laps earns an additional five bonus points. The points break down this way: winner, 180 points; second, 170; third, 165; fourth, 160; fifth, 155; sixth, 150; seventh, 146; eighth, 142; ninth, 138; 10th, 134; 11th, 130. Note: The driver finishing 12th earns 127 points, and each driver after that earns three fewer points than the driver ahead of him.


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