Johnson makes the most of fast a car in Coca-Cola 600

Posted: Tuesday, June 01, 2004

CONCORD, N.C. Jimmie Johnson took off at the start and hardly slowed down. Less than halfway through the race, only 13 other drivers were left on the lead lap.

It was a dominating performance, one of the best ever, and left everyone else racing for second in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

''Jimmie's car was so fast, I don't know that anything could have stopped him,'' said Jamie McMurray, who finished fourth.

The first hint that the rest of the field might be in trouble came a day before the race, when Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team cut short their final practice. A few laps was all he needed to get the feel he wanted from his Chevrolet.

''I heard him say he had what he was looking for,'' Matt Kenseth said. ''They quit Happy Hour early, and I thought that was a bad sign for us. We didn't have anything for him, that's for sure.''

Johnson led 334 laps the exact distance of the October event at Lowe's Motor Speedway and only was threatened a couple of times. After starting from the pole, he was out front for the first 53 laps.

Later, he led for stretches of 59, 64, 64 and 65 laps, losing the top spot only during pit stops. The last driver to lead each and every lap was Jeff Burton, who did it in September 2000 at New Hampshire.

But in reality, Johnson was every bit as intimidating Sunday night as Burton was then.

''It was really a lot of fun,'' Johnson said. ''In some cases, though, it's almost better to be second or third and go forward. When you're out front, you feel like you have a bull's-eye on you.''

In this event last season, Johnson happened to be in the lead when the race was stopped after only 414 miles because of rain. He was stung by criticism that he backed into that victory, so he came out determined to earn this one.

Mission accomplished.

''There was some controversy about that, there were some people who said that maybe we weren't the best car,'' Johnson said. ''So to come back and back it up this year is great. It's nice to deliver when you have the dominant car.''

The driver with the fastest car often doesn't win in NASCAR, because of various strategies and scenarios, and Johnson certainly had his chances to blow this one. Following his final pit stop in the last 30 laps, he came out fifth, trailing McMurray, Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield and Kasey Kahne.

McMurray stayed out, and Waltrip and Mayfield took only two tires. Kahne, like Johnson, changed all four tires.

Johnson quickly worked his way past Kahne with a three-wide, thread-the-needle move in Turn 4, then moved into second a few laps later. He passed McMurray rather easily as well, and not even a late red flag could keep Johnson from victory lane.

''It was just time to buckle down then and get after it,'' crew chief Chad Knaus said.

Johnson did that for most of the race. When asked where he thought Johnson was beating everybody, McMurray had a simple answer.

''It looked like to me he could beat everybody from the finish line around the rest of the track,'' McMurray quipped.

Waltrip felt he had a car equally as fast last season at New Hampshire, only to be hurt by problems in the pits. That was one of a handful of occasions where he lost a race with the best car.

''It never seems to work out for me, but he made it work,'' Waltrip said.

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