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Johnson's Vegas jackpot

14 March 2005

Jimmie Johnson led more than a hundred laps and took a deserving victory in an exciting, crash-filled UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In what may have been the most exciting Nextel Cup race at Las Vegas to date, save for a couple of laps at the tail of the 2004 race, Johnson outclassed the rest of a rambunctious field, leading more than 100 of the 267 laps to take his 15th career Cup win.

Despite Johnson's dominance in the #48 Hendrick Motorsport Chevrolet, the third round of the 2005 Championship gave fans a fine display of close racing through the field, a race that inspires confidence in the new rules package after a jittery start in Fontana two weeks ago.

But even with a clear second, and occasionally a third groove in evidence for much of the day, especially the closing stages, nobody could match Johnson.

Johnson finally got the better of Ryan Newman on lap 213 after a lengthy exchange through several caution periods in which Johnson was stronger on the track, Newman quicker in the pits.

However Johnson's Chad Knaus led crew got it right when it mattered most and kept their man ahead through the final round of stops 40 laps from home.

Once the green flag waved on lap 229 Johnson was able to distance himself from his nearest followers as they squabbled amongst themselves and would eventually lead home rookie teammate and Las Vegas native Kyle Busch by several seconds.

The final 40 laps may have been comfortable for last year's title runner-up, but the preceding 227 certainly weren't on a day that saw both a record number of caution flags (11) and a record number of lead changes (25).

In addition to losing time repairing a damaged side fender, Johnson and his crew were also delayed by the most bizarre pit road incident when a removed lug nut bounced back onto the wheel stud from pit road during a tyre stop.

Friday's Bud Pole winner Newman seemed the man most likely to mount a late charge on Johnson, the #12 Penske Racing Dodge driver leading more than 40 laps during the mid and late portion of the race. However after several late skirmishes with Jeff Gordon, Newman slid down the order in the closing laps.

Newman's turn one tangle with Gordon with a little over 30 laps remaining gifted second spot to the younger of the two Busch brothers, who gladly accepted his best career Nextel Cup to date after a strong, mature run all day.

Although the younger Busch didn't lead a lap, he did more than enough to hold off older brother and defending Nextel Cup Champion Kurt, who was also able to sneak underneath the squabbling Newman and Gordon.

Gordon, who eventually got the better of his foe, not before a slight love tap of reciprocation, fought back to take fifth place on a day where he could easily have played his part in a Hendrick 1-2-3.

Sixth across the line was Kevin Harvick, the driver of the #29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet going some way towards redeeming his team following their fuel cell issues in qualifying that resulted in Harvick starting from the back of the field.

Fontana winner Greg Biffle outpaced poleman Newman to lead lap one and was amongst the leaders for much of the day but could do no better than sixth at the end, heading Casey Mears, defending Las Vegas winner Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and a grip-less Newman home.

Outside of the top ten, Bobby Hamilton Jr put in his best showing since taking the wheel of the #32 PPI Motorsport Chevrolet to finish eleventh while Joe Nemechek, rookie Travis Kvapil and Elliott Sadler all ran in the top ten until a wrong air pressure adjustment (or a faulty jack in Nemechek's case) dropped them down the order at the end. Nemechek finished 19th, Kvapil 26th after leading nine laps and Sadler 29th after fighting back from a spin and the loss of a lap.

Dale Earnhardt Jr's legion of fans were to be disappointed early, as their man punted Brain Vickers into a race ending spin on lap 12, leaving him 42nd. Also falling foul of the concrete were Bobby Labonte (in the aftermath of the Earnhardt/Vickers tangle), Kasey Kahne, Hermie Sadler, Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader, although the latter two were able to continue.

In the points table, Johnson's win, combined with a second place showing in Fontana, hoists him 15 points clear of Kurt Busch with Greg Biffle now the only other driver within 100 points of the leader.





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