Nascar driver Jimmie Johnson,center, gives a high five to his crew as they celebrate winning the Mountain Dew Southern 500 in victory lane Sunday, Nov 14, 2004, at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C.
AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain
DARLINGTON, S.C. Jimmie Johnson has fought through mistakes, mechanical failures and the despair of losing friends in a plane crash to charge back into NASCAR's closest championship battle ever.
He got some unexpected help Sunday from teammate Jeff Gordon, whose crew made an uncharacteristic mistake on pit lane. Johnson took advantage of the opportunity to win the final Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and move within easy reach of Nextel Cup points leader Kurt Busch with one race remaining.
Johnson dominated most of the 26-race regular season, but lost a big lead when his No. 48 Chevrolet team started to experiment with new parts. But four victories in the last five races, combined with a sixth-place finish last week at Phoenix, have given the third-year Cup driver momentum going into next Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Busch fought an ill-handling car after his Ford was damaged early in the race when rookie Brendan Gaughan bounced off the wall and hit him. Busch somehow overcame adversity, as he has several times during the Chase, to post a sixth-place finish and retain the points lead.
Johnson, who gave his crew credit for getting him to the lead late in the race with two fast pit stops, had to overtake rookie Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray after they stayed out when the other leaders pitted for tires during the last of eight caution periods.
The race restarted with 18 to go in the 367-lap event and Johnson, in third, passed Kahne for second place on lap 352 and took the lead from McMurray on 359. Then he pulled away to his 14th career win.
Gordon, a six-time Darlington winner, appeared on the way to an easy victory, dominating the second half of the race until he pitted on lap 337 during another caution period. His car came down on an air hose, costing him precious time and the four-time series champion, leading coming entering pit road, came out sixth.
He charged to the end but couldn't catch Johnson or Martin. McMurray finished fourth, followed by Kahne, Busch and rookie Carl Edwards.
Heading to the finale, Busch, who came into Sunday's race leading Gordon by 41 points, now leads Johnson by 18 and Gordon by 21. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had to pit late in the race to change a battery, finished 11th and now trails by 72 points, with Martin 82 behind.
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