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Pit crew gets it done

Posted: Monday, March 22, 2004

DARLINGTON, S.C. The NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Darlington Raceway was decided by inches for the second straight year. This time, though, it was on pit road and not the racetrack.

Jimmie Johnson barely beat Bobby Labonte out of the pits on his last stop Sunday, then held off a late challenge to win the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

''These guys got me the lead early in the race and they got me out front again when it really counted,'' Johnson said, high-fiving and pointing at crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of his crew.

It didn't look like Johnson or anyone else had a chance to beat Labonte as the former Cup champion built a lead of more than half a straightaway over Kurt Busch with only 20 laps left in the 293-lap event.

But, when Kyle Petty's engine went up in a plume of white smoke, bringing out a caution flag on lap 275, Johnson found hope.

''I really wanted a caution to come because I thought with the pit stops we'd been having, we'd have a chance to win the race,'' said Johnson, who was running right behind Busch in third.

All the leaders pitted for much-needed fresh tires and Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet crew put up its third consecutive 12.6-second stop, getting him out about 8 inches in front of Labonte's No. 18 Chevy.

The green flag came out on lap 283, but another caution flag waved moments later when Tony Stewart bumped rookie Kasey Kahne from behind and sent him sliding through turns three and four.

The ensuing caution was longer than expected and, when the green was displayed again with only four laps remaining, it looked like this race might turn out like last year's when Ricky Craven nipped Busch by about 3 inches in a bumping, fender-banging finish.

Labonte, who won the Southern 500 here in 2000, gave it a good try. He got the nose of his car next to Johnson's rear quarterpanel several times but couldn't quite catch the leader, finishing 0.132 seconds about two car-lengths behind.

''The car was handling perfect,'' Labonte said. ''We obviously didn't want to mess with it when the caution came out. But the 48 car beat us off pit road and we ended up chasing him for second."



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