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Johnson cashes in at Las Vegas

Posted: Monday, March 14, 2005

LAS VEGAS — With a $30,000 bonus tucked inside his pocket, Jimmie Johnson headed to the casino to celebrate his latest victory.

If he can run the tables the same way he's running the Nextel Cup series, he might just break the bank.

Johnson ended the Roush Racing stranglehold at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, spoiling what could have been a banner day for hometown boys Kurt and Kyle Busch by beating them both to win the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.

Johnson, who won for the 15th time in his career, has victories in five of the last nine races, dating to last season. He hasn't finished worse than sixth since October, and this victory put him right back where he spent most of last season — on top of the points standings.

This latest victory helped Hendrick Motorsports claim a piece of the track in the desert that Roush Racing has dominated with five victories in the first seven races.

But with Johnson and Hendrick teammates Kyle Busch finishing second and Jeff Gordon fourth, the Roush dominance is over. Kurt Busch carried the Roush flag with a third-place finish.

After the race, NASCAR said the roof of Johnson's Chevrolet was too low in post-race inspection and Kyle Busch, who finished second, had a car that came in too high on the rear quarter panel.

NASCAR did not announce immediate penalties, but could dock points from both drivers next week. If Johnson loses any points, Kurt Busch would take over the lead in the standings.

Johnson was strong the entire race, leading a race-high 107 laps as he seemed to coast toward the victory. The only trouble he had was passing a lapped car with under 20 laps to go.

It allowed Kyle Busch, a 19-year-old rookie, to close the gap on the leader while big brother, Kurt, the reigning Nextel Cup champion, also moved within striking distance.

But lapped traffic soon got in the way of the Busch brothers, preventing them from challenging Johnson for the win. Johnson cruised to victory, beating Kyle to the line by several car lengths.

''It was a great performance for the Hendricks,'' Johnson said. ''Right now both the Hendrick cars and the Roush cars, you can see the hard work they put in over the winter. They've got one win and we've got (two).''

Gordon won the season-opening Daytona 500, and Roush driver Greg Biffle won in California.

As Johnson was driving his Chevrolet to Victory Lane, Kyle was treasuring his second-place finish.

''This is as good as a win as far as I'm concerned,'' he yelled to his crew.

''I had a bunch of guys put money on me, so it would have been cool to have Jimmie pull over and let us win,'' said Kyle, who went off at 60-1 before the race. ''But, hey, next year I'll probably have a lot lower odds.''

The Busch brothers have had a whirlwind week in Vegas, the city where they grew up. It's always a party when the boys are home, as they cram in all the friend and family visits they can — as well as a dozen or so visits to the In-N-Out Burger.

Kyle even squeezed in a stint as instructor for a high school defensive driving course.

But all the glitz and glamour isn't always what it's cracked up to be, at least for Kurt, who has seemed to struggle at his home track. So with the race coming to an end, and his shot at a victory gone, he had an even harder time accepting the kid he calls ''Shrub'' beating him to the finish line.

''To see (Kyle) in front of me, oooh, that was tough to swallow,'' Kurt said. ''But I am so very proud of him. But I officially have to cut it out from here: No more advice for Kyle.''

Kevin Harvick, who had to start in 42nd place because his team admittedly cheated in qualifying, battled back and overcame a speeding penalty to finish fifth. Greg Biffle was sixth, followed by Casey Mears and Matt Kenseth, the two-time defending race winner.

Polesitter Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart rounded out the top 10.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now in an official slump after wrecking early in the race. He was awful two weeks ago in California, where his car had three flat tires and he finished 32nd.

This time, his Chevrolet clipped Brian Vickers, triggering a five-car wreck. Vickers threw his arms up in disgust at Earnhardt as the two climbed out of their cars, and Earnhardt was contrite after privately apologizing to Vickers.

''I got in the back of him, turned him around and just took us both out really. It's pretty much as simple as that,'' Earnhardt said. ''It's just a shame. I try not to make too many mistakes but I made a big one today.''

Earnhardt ended up 42nd — his worst finish in at least two seasons — and plummeted to 27th in the standings.

Robby Gordon's struggles with his new motor program also continued.

Gordon, who is fielding his own team this season with motors built by Indy-car engine expert John Menard, has blown three in three races and failed to make the Daytona 500 partly because of an engine problem.

Kasey Kahne's struggles also continued. He finished second here a year ago, but wasn't really competitive this time and hit the wall midway through the race. He ended up 38th, and after a 40th-place finish two weeks ago, is 38th in the points.

''I'm upset with myself for crashing the car, but I was running two seconds off the pace and still couldn't hang on to it,'' Kahne said. ''We were junk.''



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