By Andrew Charman

Jimmie Johnson took his eighth win of the year, and his second at Darlington, in the 55th and final Southern 500 to be run at the South Carolina track. But history meant little compared to the fact that the win moved him within 18 points of title leader Kurt Busch and set up an unprecedented five-way final shootout next weekend .

With qualifying rained out the field lined up in owner points order, Kurt Busch heading the 10 championship contenders and the other 33 starters. Busch's #97 Sharpie Ford duly led the first of 367 laps around the tough tyre-killing 1.3-mile raceway before his closest title rival Jeff Gordon eased his #24 Dupont Chevrolet into top spot.

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Over the opening laps Gordon and Busch pulled out a gap to the pursuit, headed by Jimmie Johnson's #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Ryan Newman in the #12 ALLTEL Dodge and Dale Earnhardt Jr's #8 Budweiser Chevrolet. But 19 laps in Gordon's car suddenly went very loose, and Busch, Newman and Johnson were quickly past, only for Newman to slow and head for pit road with a cut right front tyre, losing two laps in the process.

Johnson was next to earn his five bonus points, taking the lead on lap 27, while his car owner Gordon continued to slip down the field, praying for a caution to do some pit road work on the car. In a very different mood was Jamie McMurray, the 11th-place starter taking his #42 Texaco Havoline Dodge past Busch for second on lap 37 as he looked to add the Southern 500 to victory in the Busch series race 24 hours earlier.

Green flag stops kicked off on lap 55, and the top 10 runners all hit pit road for new rubber within the next five laps. Fastest crew was Greg Biffle's, the #16 National Guard Ford taking the lead before moving aside to let team-mate and title contender Mark Martin earn his five points. The #6 Viagra Ford enjoyed 20 laps out front until it was caught by Johnson, Martin moving over to let the clearly quicker Lowe's Chevrolet go ahead. Bigger picture in mind, Mark was determined not to get involved in unnecessary battles on this day.

The first yellow appeared on lap 81, as Bobby Hamilton Jr's #32 Tide Chevrolet found the wall, and everyone headed for pit road and tyres. Martin emerged quickest to lead the lap 88 restart ahead of Biffle, Johnson and the again impressive Robby Gordon in the #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet. Busch was 10th, Jeff Gordon five spots further back and under pressure from his closest points rival Earnhardt.

On lap 97 Martin again gave up his lead, this time to Biffle, and Johnson quickly went past the Viagra Ford too, within five laps retaking the lead. Behind him Martin was inspired, and on lap 114 he was back at the front, McMurray taking advantage of Johnson's lost momentum to snatch second. Within four laps he became the race's seventh leader, just in time to see the caution fly for a spin by Bobby Labonte.

The yellow proved a big break for Busch, the Sharpie Ford having seriously bent its fender on Brendan Gaughan's Kodak Dodge. Fixing it took time and he resumed 24th, the fast-pitting Robby Gordon leading Martin, Johnson and McMurray back to green on lap 125. Within five more laps it was Johnson back ahead, Martin his closest chaser and McMurray also going past Gordon as the caution flew again for a clash between Michael Waltrip and Todd Bodine.

Johnson, Gordon and Martin led back to green on lap 151, the Lowe's Chevy getting a jump as Martin eased past Gordon. Meanwhile the other Gordon was on the march in an improved Dupont Chevrolet, up to eighth with Earnhardt just behind. Dale Jr's progress stalled there but Gordon was into fourth by half distance and taking McMurray a lap later.

The yellow flew again on lap 195 as Dale Jarrett hit the wall and spun, and the resultant stops proved disastrous for Johnson, a lug nut problem dropping the Lowe's Chevy to 11th as its owner Gordon assumed the lead ahead of Martin. Busch meanwhile was now 12th, but as the long green run continued and the sun sank, track temperatures dropped and Kurt's car in particular suffered from lack of grip, dropping back down the field. He was rescued by the caution, flying on lap 249 for debris.

Martin beat Gordon out of pit road, Johnson just behind, while Busch stopped twice, resuming 20th at the lap 254 restart. The two leaders got away and Gordon was quickly past Martin, looking for another five points for the most laps spent out front. On lap 291 he took that marker, and continued to maintain a steady gap of more than three seconds to Martin.

Caution six flew on lap 303 as Kyle Petty hit the wall in turn two and at the same moment Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd ran into each other at turn four. Gordon led the field into pit road and out again, Martin and Johnson retaining their places too as the green flew with 57 laps to go.

Again Gordon drove away, but fastest was third-placed Johnson, quickly closing down Martin for second and setting off after the leader. But Gordon was in control and steadily eased out his advantage, until on lap 331 Ryan Newman's engine blew and sparked a caution.

Pit road proved crucial, especially for Gordon who exited seventh when the car was dropped onto an air hose. Johnson was fastest out while rookie Carl Edwards put his #99 Roush Ford into second. Busch too had a great stop, resuming fourth and reclaiming his points lead. With everyone on fresh tyres the final 26 laps were set to be frantic. Edwards went for the lead and almost found the wall, but came straight back at Johnson, only for the yellow to fly again as Kevin Harvick stopped on the track, sparking more pit stops.

There were no mistakes this time but behind Johnson Busch beat Edwards out, Martin and Gordon just behind. To further complicate matters McMurray and Kasey Kahne's #9 UAW/Dodge Dealers Dodge stayed out, lining up at the front with 18 to go. Johnson quickly went inside Kahne, but Kasey stayed on the gas, going side by side through turn one before conceding the spot. Busch initially stayed with them but couldn't hold on, quickly passed by Martin and then Gordon. Out front Johnson wound down the laps to his second Darlington win of 2004, as both Martin and Gordon squeezed past McMurray to set up an unmissable championship finale in Miami next weekend.

Johnson was a very happy occupier of victory lane. "These guys behind me won this on pit road today," he grinned. "I'll go to Homestead now..." Second-placed Martin was equally elated. "This team gave me a great car tonight, I wish we'd had five more laps" he said. But Gordon was less happy with his crew's late mistake. "They gave me some great pit stops today but you've got to have them at the right time - it's unfortunate." As for Busch, having struggled he would still leave Darlington with a title lead, albeit a far smaller one. "It's given us the incentive to go to Homestead and tie up this thing," he said.

NASCAR's initial Chase for the Cup could hardly have a better finale. A maximum 156-point swing is on offer to each driver at Homestead and Busch, Johnson and Gordon go there 21 points apart. If you like long odds Earnhardt is 72 points back, Martin 82. Place your bets...