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Johnson wins at Atlanta, tightens points race

Oct 29, 2007 - 12:00 AM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

HAMPTON, Georgia (Ticker) - Suddenly, NASCAR has a points race again.

A bizarre ending to Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Pep Boys 500 had Jimmie Johnson winning the race on an aborted green-white-checkered flag finish after Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost a wheel, sending his Chevrolet Monte Carlo crashing hard into the first turn wall on the final restart.

Because there is only one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, the race was over and Johnson had scored his eighth win of the season, moving him nine points behind points leader Jeff Gordon with three races remaining.

Gordon, who finished seventh in a Chevrolet, entered Sunday's race with a 53-point lead over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Johnson.

"I'm just happy to have a points lead now after the day we had," Gordon said. "It wasn't a great performance for us today. We got it turned around too late. We really fixed it for the short runs. If we had a five-lap run, we would have given them a run for their money on four tires."

Johnson won for the second-straight week and swept both Atlanta Nextel Cup races this season.

"I had a little cushion going into Turn One to get away from them," said Johnson, who said he had a fifth-to eighth-place car for most of the race. "We took advantage of things today."

Johnson gave his winner's check of $349,561 to the American Red Cross "Wildfire Relief Fund" to aide the brush fire victims of Southern California. His sponsor, Lowe's, along with team owner Rick Hendrick, Speedway Motorsports Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith and NASCAR's Jim France all agreed to match the contribution.

"We feel confident over $1 million will be sent out to the American Red Cross from today's victory," Johnson said. "It's just a great day."

Johnson's victory came on a pivotal call by his crew chief, Chad Knaus, on his final pit stop on lap 319 during a caution period. Gordon had pitted for four tires and Knaus made the call to just change two for Johnson after originally planning on a four-tire change.

"The only way we are going to catch the 24 the way they are running is to race for the win," Knaus said. "We were able to get the lead with a two-tire change when I saw the others take on four tires."

Prior to that, if the race had finished without a caution, Knaus said he intended to keep his driver out without pitting as most of the cars fighting for the win were trying to stretch fuel.

"His pit call at the end put us in contention to win the race," Johnson said. "It's going to be a fight to the end. We took a big bite out of Jeff Gordon's lead today. Now, we can really race over these next three races for this championship."

On the next restart, Denny Hamlin's Chevrolet ran out of fuel at the flagstand, causing Jeff Burton to run into the back of Jamie McMurray. Martin Truex Jr., who led most of the race, slammed into the back of Hamlin's car while Kyle Busch, the leader before that caution, spun across the grass.

"Coming to the restart, I saw him swerving the car a little bit," Johnson said. "I think he knew early on that he was running out of gas or had an air bubble in his line. I saw everybody stacking up and saw the flag man throw the green and he didn't accelerate.

"I have to give Denny some credit. He could have made that one big mess, but he left the lead cars a lane."

That set up a green-white -checkered finish and it was going to be battle between Johnson's Chevrolet and Carl Edwards' Ford Fusion. But that all ended when Earnhardt's car crashed into the first turn wall after losing the left-rear wheel.

"Man, that was a hit," Earnhardt said. "It was hard and loud bam, into the wall. I knew when I was sliding up there it was going to be bit and it was. Loud and hard. We must have had an issue with the hubs or something because we had loose lug and a loose rear wheel several times through the day.

"We passed a lot of cars today but you can only do that if everything is tight and screwed on correctly."

Edwards, who entered the weekend fending off criticism for his near attack of Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth following last Sunday's at Martinsville Speedway, was left wondering what might have been if the race had concluded through the green- white -checkered."

"I would have given anything for those last two laps to go green," Edwards said. "That would have been a heck of a race. When we got that caution, I thought we might get it. We didn't have a second-place car today."

Reed Sorenson of nearby Peachtree City, Georgia, was third in a Dodge Charger, followed by Matt Kenseth's Ford and Burton's Chevrolet.

Clint Bowyer finished sixth and continues to remain a factor in The Chase. He is third in points, 111 behind Gordon. But the other drivers in the Chase are pretty much out of it, ranging from Edwards at 261 back to Truex at 513 out in 12th place.

Truex led five times for 135 laps before he was taken out in the Hamlin-instigated calamity.

"Martin's involved in the wreck was just an occurrence for us," said Max Siegel, president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt Inc. "Martin had a great car. He and Bono (crew chief Kevin Manion) were doing everything they needed to do.

"Martin drove a great race. I was just an unfortunate incident.""

There were 19 lead changes among 11 drivers and 14 cautions for 55 laps. Johnson averaged 135.279 miles per hour for his 31st career victory.

There was an early indication that this might be a goofy race when NASCAR's all-time victory leader, Richard "The King" Petty waved the green flag to start the race to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his final race.

The wake from the 43 cars that started the race blew the hat off Petty's head sending it sailing across the race track towards the first turn.

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