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Johnson gamble pays off in Subway 500

Apr 13, 2008 - 6:41 AM By Bruce Martin PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

AVONDALE, Arizona (Ticker) -- After dominating last season by winning 10 races and his second straight Cup title, Jimmie Johnson had to gamble to win his first race in 2008.

Johnson stretched his fuel mileage to steal Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. It was Hendrick Motorsports' first win this season.

Johnson's Chevrolet finished 8.073 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer's Chevrolet. Denny Hamlin's Toyota Camry was 15.910 seconds behind in third place.

Carl Edwards' Ford finished fourth and Mark Martin's Chevrolet rounded out the top five.

But it took a "little white lie" from crew chief Chad Knaus to encourage Johnson to slow down and save fuel.

"Since I climbed out of the car, I found out he was lying for the better good of the team," Johnson said after scoring the 34th Cup win of his career. "First, he said I was like 10 seconds ahead. Then, he said, 'He pitted, you have 20 seconds, let off, two more seconds a lap.'"

The "he" was Bowyer, and it wasn't a little lie, but a big one.

"Bowyer, I guess, didn't pit," Johnson said. "It worked and he knew what the gap was. I didn't know who was there. There were a lot of cars at full speed trying to get by me. I just tried to stay up in the second lane, be smart with the fuel and not step on the gas pedal too hard and just kind of coast around."

The strategy worked as Johnson had plenty of fuel, enough to even rev the engine and smoke his tires to celebrate his victory.

"My instinct was to step on the gas pedal," Johnson said. "That was good. The white lies he was telling me were even more helpful.

"When he (Knaus) says something, I might think about it for a split second, but I believe him every time."

That trust allowed Johnson to win at PIR for the second straight race. He won here last November, delivering what would be the knockout blow to Jeff Gordon in the race for the Cup title in 2007.

But on Saturday night, it looked like if a Hendrick Motorsports driver was going to win the race, it would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was in front as late as lap 271 of the 312-lap contest.

In fact, the most entertaining portions of the race were Earnhardt's battles with Mark Martin and, before that, when he was in side-by-side battles for the lead with Johnson.

But in the shuffle at the end of the race, Earnhardt's car faded to a seventh-place finish.

"I'm not frustrated," Earnhardt said. "I had a good finish and I'm proud of my team and I had a great car. I don't know what our expectations truly were going in to the race. But I don't think they were that good. I don't know if we could have made it at the end on fuel. I don't know if we could have made it. I don't know when we stopped, or how much I was burning a lap.

"I can't do the math. I just do what I was told. We did the right thing. We can't run out and finish out of the top-10. We did the right thing but I'm not frustrated though."

Johnson led four times for 120 laps while Earnhardt was in front three times for 87. Martin led twice for 68 laps. There were 10 lead changes among four drivers and eight cautions for 42 laps.

The winner collected $262,111 and won at an average speed of 103.292 miles per hour.

For most of the race, it looked like it would be Earnhardt - not Johnson - that would give Hendrick Motorsports its first win in this season. That was before Martin passed the crowd favorite with 41 laps to go, dropping Earnhardt into second place.

Hamlin moved up to second place before he pitted for fuel and two tires with 15 laps to go. Martin Truex pitted with 13 laps to go and Tony Stewart pitted with 12 laps left. Stewart's Toyota stalled coming off pit road, blowing his chance at winning the race.

Earnhardt made his final pit stop with 11 to go while Martin continued to lead. But one lap later, Martin pitted for the final time for two tires and fuel.

That put Johnson in the lead with eight laps to go. Edwards pitted for fuel with only seven laps to go. Johnson had a 10-second lead over Clint Bowyer with six laps left.

Johnson was in the lead when the green flag waved on lap 121 but he was mired in the middle of the pack behind the cars at the end of the lead lap.

Earnhardt took the lead when he was able to use Brian Vickers' slower car to set the pick and drove to the lead in the third turn.

Johnson regained the lead on lap 127 when he passed Earnhardt's Chevrolet.

Pole winner Ryan Newman's engine blew up on lap 133, spraying oil on the track which resulted in Jeff Burton, JJ Yeley and Reed Sorenson spinning out. The yellow flag waved for the fourth time in the race.

Because there was so much oil on the track, NASCAR official threw the red flag to stop the race.

After a stoppage of 9 minutes, 47 seconds to clean the track, the green flag flew again on lap 141 with Johnson ahead of Martin.

As the race became a battle of pit stops and fuel strategies, it was Johnson and Bowyer that tried to stretch it out to the very end.

"We were probably a seventh-place car all night and never really got higher than that," Bowyer said. "We were conserving brakes and halfway through the run thought we might be able to go all the way. (Crew chief) Gil Martin told me we were three laps shy of making it. I was sure I had saved enough.

"You never know for sure. He told me we were only three laps shy of making it. We got stretched out there and I conserved and it paid off."

But while Bowyer was able to stretch his fuel to vault into second place, it was Johnson who went slow enough to win, going against his basic instincts as a race driver.

"We don't play the fuel mileage game," Johnson admitted. "We race for points year after year. If we can't make it, we're coming to pit road. So the fact that we stayed out and rolled the dice, I figured I would probably run out coming off of turn four.

"I had enough to do a little burnout, see the guys on the crew then I drove around to the backstretch and ran out. It was figured to a T."

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