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Auto Racing

Johnson Closes On Gordon

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 27, 2013 at 03:31 AM

HAMPTON, Ga. - Jimmie Johnson donated his winnings from his Nextel Cup-high eighth victory of the year Sunday to the American Red Cross for wildfire burn victims in his native southern California.

He might also have issued an apology to everybody he is racing against.

It took a freak sequence of events and a lucky call by crew chief Chad Knaus for Johnson - with a 'fifth- to eighth-place car' through much of the Pep Boys Auto 500 - to win for a second consecutive week and close to within nine points of Jeff Gordon with three races remaining.

'Circumstances there at the end really worked out for us, and we took advantage of it,' Johnson said after leading only the final eight laps.

With 10 laps to go, it appeared the race would come down to Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch, who had led 310 of the 328 laps, or possibly Matt Kenseth, who was battling Truex for second.

But Johnny Sauter blew a tire on Lap 318 to bring out a caution. That brought most of the cars onto pit road for a splash of fuel and either two or four tires, depending on strategy.

Kyle Busch's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, called for a four-tire change, but a mistake cost Busch several seconds and sent him out in 15th place, steaming mad at his crew.

Meanwhile, Knaus, with a pit stall near the end of pit road, saw that some of the drivers who came ahead of Johnson were taking four tires. Knaus called for a two-tire stop, and that sent Johnson, who came in fifth, out in second.

Denny Hamlin picked up the lead by staying out, but on the restart, his No. 11 Chevy slowed with a fuel problem, and Johnson swerved around him on the outside to take the lead.

'I saw the flag man throw the green flag, and he Hamlin never accelerated,' Johnson said. 'I realized at that point he had a problem with the fuel pickup, and everybody stacked up after that. I have to give Denny some credit - he could have made that one big mess. He pulled down and left me and the lead-lap cars a lane to get by on the outside.'

But Truex and Kyle Busch didn't get by. Truex ran into the rear of Hamlin's car, and Kyle Busch, who had angrily told his crew over his radio not to be surprised if he brought the car back wadded up, slid across the infield grass.

'There is nothing he Truex could have done,' said Hamlin, who described his problem as water in the carburetor. 'It's not his fault that we were sitting there in the middle of the track.'

The caution came out again, setting up a green-white-checkered 'overtime' finish with Johnson leading Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had fought back from two pit road penalties and one of the day's many flat tires.

On the restart, though, Earnhardt made a move on Edwards for second going into the first turn, and he suddenly shot into the wall when his left rear wheel came off. The caution lights came on, assuring Johnson of the victory.

'I thought the 8 Earnhardt was going to make quick work of Edwards because he had such a good car today,' Johnson said. 'I had a little cushion going into 1, and I was trying to run like crazy to get away from those guys because I knew the 8 was coming.

Said Earnhardt: 'We must have had an issue with the hubs or something, because we had loose lugs and a loose rear wheel several times. When that wasn't a problem, we were fast as heck. We passed a lot of cars, but you can only do that if everything is tight and screwed on correctly.'

Kurt Busch may have had a better car than anybody, but two slow pit stops and not having time to take advantage of taking four tires on his last pit stop left him with an eighth-place finish.

'We had pit stops where we would come in first, second or third and go out 12th,' Busch said. 'It's just tough. I'm scared to come down pit road because either our crew isn't quite hitting on eight cylinders or we just didn't make the right decisions on pit calls.'

Gordon, who came in with a 53-point lead, struggled much of the day but rallied to finish seventh and cling to the lead. Clint Bowyer, the only other driver in contention, fought to a sixth-place finish and inched up to 111 points back.

Dangerous Tony Stewart, who came in clinging to hopes of a miracle, was all but mathematically eliminated with a 30th-place finish that left him in sixth place, 322 points back.

Gordon said his No. 24 Chevy was too loose during the middle of the race, but adjustments made it better at the end, especially on short runs

'I'm just happy to have the points lead after the day we had,' he said.

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