Johnson dominates the 600

Last year, Jimmie Johnson was declared the winner of the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600. There was no uncertainty or controversy this time.

Johnson dropped to fifth during a late caution but roared back to the lead with 16 laps left Sunday night to win the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race for the second straight year.

He led nearly the entire way, routinely pulling away from the rest of the field. On the rare occasions he wasn't out front, it was only a matter of time before he chased down the leader.

``It was an incredible car and a lot of fun tonight,'' Johnson said.

Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was so good that the rest of the drivers sounded as though they were vying for second place, claimed by Michael Waltrip. Matt Kenseth finished third, followed by Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler.

When asked about what Johnson was doing to stay out in front, Kenseth was quick with a quip.

``I don't know,'' Kenseth said, ``because I never saw him.''

``The 48 car was pretty much in a league of his own,'' McMurray said.

Johnson gave away a chance to win at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- his sponsor's home track -- as a rookie in 2002 when he slid through his pits on the final pit stop. He didn't make a mistake this time during his last stop, but a slow effort by his crew allowed Kasey Kahne to beat him out of the pits.

McMurray decided not to come in and held the lead, and Waltrip and Jeremy Mayfield changed only two tires to take second and third.

``We did what we had to do to try to win the race,'' McMurray said.

But Johnson made a spectacular move after the restart. As he drove to the outside of Kahne in Turn 3 with 25 laps to go, the pack came up on the slower car of Robby Gordon.

Johnson got by Kahne, then turned hard left to get under Gordon, weaving through the crowd.

``I stuck my nose in there to see if the hole would stay there for me,'' Johnson said. ``It just seemed like it was going to work out from my point of view. I don't know why.

``It looked spectacular, I guess.''  In the pits, crew chief Chad Knaus simply shook his head.

`That's sick, that's all it was,'' Knaus said. ``He saw a hole that was like a keyhole, and he just slide it in there. It was awesome.''

Johnson went on to chase down McMurray and survive a red flag with six laps left for his second victory of 2004. The finish was slowed by a caution for Bobby Labonte's wreck on the final lap.

When the final yellow fell, Kenseth and McMurray were side-by-side, and the original rundown listed McMurray in third. That was subsequently changed.

Johnson led an incredible 334 laps -- which would be the entire distance in a 500-mile race -- and came up one short of the record set in 1967 by winner Jim Paschal.

``I had the first 600 here won, and then I blew it,'' Johnson said. ``Usually, when you have a car this good, you make a mistake. It's very satisfying to have one that good and close the deal.''

Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from a lap down to finish sixth. He leads Johnson by five points in the season standings.

Casey Mears was seventh, followed by Mayfield, Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace.

The victory capped a great weekend for Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick, who won the Busch Series event Saturday with driver Kyle Busch.

``The last two days have been pretty much unbelievable,'' Hendrick said. ``This is home, we work a mile from here. So this one's really, really special. Jimmie did a heck of a job.''



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