John­son matches the ‘In­tim­ida­tor’ with 76th vic­tory

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berr y

HAMP­TON, Ga. — Jimmie John­son smoked his tires cross­ing the fin­ish line, cel­e­brat­ing an­other win at At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way.

Then he re­al­ized what meant.

John­son stuck his hand out of the No. 48 car, hold­ing up three fin­gers.

It was his lit­tle trib­ute to the In­tim­ida­tor.

John­son used pit strat­egy and a late yel­low to claim the 76th vic­tory of his ca­reer Sun­day, pulling even with the late Dale Earn­hardt on the NAS­CAR ca­reer list. Only six driv­ers have won more. “This is spe­cial for sure,” said John­son, who be­gan his Cup ca­reer shortly af­ter Earn­hardt was killed in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Day­tona 500. “There was a big void in my mind not hav­ing a chance to race against him. I was lit­er­ally a hand­ful of months away from hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity. To tie him to­day, for me per­son­ally, gives me a lit­tle bit of at­tach­ment to the great Dale Earn­hardt.”

John­son won the race in over­time, cross­ing the line un­der yel­low af­ter the only wreck of the day. In a poignant touch, team­mate Dale Earn­hardt Jr. was the run­ner-up.

it re­ally

“If he’s gonna tie that record, I’m cer­tainly glad I got to run se­cond,” Ju­nior said. “I think my dad would’ve thought the world of him.”

Kevin Har­vick led 131 laps, more than any­one else, but ceded the lead af­ter he made his last green-flag pit stop nine laps af­ter John­son. The No. 48 car made a quicker stop and wound up with about a 14-se­cond lead, then watched it fade away as Har­vick gave chase on newer tires.

Har­vick was about five sec­onds be­hind when Ryan New­man cut a tire and spun on the front stretch with three laps to go, bring­ing out only the se­cond yel­low flag of the race. With over­time loom­ing, ev­ery­one came to the pits for new tires. John­son re­turned to the track still lead­ing, and the vic­tory was his when that crash on the back­stretch took out four cars.

John­son cred­ited crew chief Chad Knaus for call­ing the early pit stop, a strat­egy that al­lowed him to get past Har­vick.

“It was def­i­nitely a gutsy call,” John­son said. “The 4 car (Har­vick) was aw­fully tough. It was go­ing to take strat­egy to get by him.”

For Har­vick, it was an­other At­lanta heartache. He spun his tires on the fi­nal restart and wound up a dis­ap­point­ing sixth, hardly in­dica­tive of the way he ran most of the race.

Har­vick has led more than 100 laps in four of his last five races at the 1.54mile tri­o­val, but he hasn’t won here since the spring event in 2001 — in just his third race af­ter tak­ing over at Richard Chil­dress Rac­ing fol­low­ing Earn­hardt’s death.

The cars set a blis­ter­ing pace in the first test of a new aero­dy­namic pack­age de­signed to pro­mote more com­pet­i­tive rac­ing. The first 210 laps were run un­der green be­fore a yel­low came out for de­bris on the track.

Af­ter the restart, Har­vick and Martin Truex went back and forth, ex­chang­ing the lead sev­eral times be­fore Har­vick started to pull away. It was a thrilling dis­play, but in the end it didn’t mat­ter.

Har­vick lost the lead in the pits, al­low­ing John­son to claim his fifth Cup vic­tory in At­lanta.

Kyle Busch, who posted the fastest time in qual­i­fy­ing but had to start from the back of the field af­ter his car failed in­spec­tion, ral­lied to take third — just ahead of his brother Kurt, who in­her­ited the pole af­ter his sib­ling’s mis­for­tune.

KENSETH PENALTY: Matt Kenseth lost two laps and any chance of win­ning when his pit crew was pe­nal­ized for il­le­gal fu­elling.

NAS­CAR caught a crew mem­ber plac­ing a wedge wrench on the deck lid of the No. 20 car dur­ing fu­elling, a vi­o­la­tion of the rule that pro­hibits the fu­eler from per­form­ing “any ad­just­ments or other pit stop pro­ce­dures while the fuel can cou­pler is en­gaged.” Kenseth fin­ished 19th. FILL­ING IN FOR SMOKE: Ty Dil­lon had a non­de­script day sub­bing for in­jured Tony Ste­wart in the No. 14 car.

Look­ing to make a good im­pres­sion a day af­ter his 24th birth­day, Dil­lon fin­ished two laps down in 17th.

Ste­wart has missed the first two races of his farewell sea­son while re­cov­er­ing from a back in­jury suf­fered in an all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent. It’s not known when he’ll be able to re­turn.

PER­FECT WEATHER: At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way didn’t have to pay out for its per­fect-weather ticket guar­an­tee. The weather, in­deed, was per­fect. Even though the At­lanta race was held on its ear­li­est date ever — and has peren­ni­ally been plagued by in­clement con­di­tions — the tem­per­a­ture when the green flag waved was an un­sea­son­ably warm 18 C, with a light breeze and clear blue skies.

The crowd was es­ti­mated at 55,000, an in­crease over the pre­vi­ous year but still a far cry from the track’s glory days.

JOHN AMIS / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Things heat up on the front stretch for Aric Almirola Sun­day in At­lanta.

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