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Darlington: Johnson win means thriller finale

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.

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.



Related Pictures

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The title contenders were all up front early on at Darlington (Photo Autostock/Ford Motor Co).
Jimmie Johnson took his fourth win in five races, victorious at Darlington (Photo, GM Media).
Second at Darlington for Mark Martin kept his title hopes alive (Photo Autostock/Ford Motor Co)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #19 DrawTire Ford, leads Kyle Busch, driver of the #51 Dollar General Toyota, and the rest of the field during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 200 presented by ZLOOP at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 21, 2014 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, races to win Sunday, August 17, 2014 in the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy Johns Chevrolet SS finished second. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
With General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, holds the Michigan Heritage Trophy after winning the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. In 2013, MIS began awarding the Michigan Heritage Trophy as a recognition and celebration of the automobile and it`s importance to the race track and the manufacturers competing in NASCAR. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates with his crew after winning the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday, August 17, 2014 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. This was Gordon`s third win of the season. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, Trevor Bayne, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, Justin Allgaier, driver of the #51 Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet, and Michael Annett, driver of the #7 Allstate Peterbilt/Pilot Chevrolet, are involved in an incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, lead the field to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford, races Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 17, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, captured the pole position Friday, August 15, 2014 for Sunday`s Pure Michigan NASCAR Sprint Cup 400 race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. The was Gordon`s second pole position this season. He set a new track record in the final round of qualifying with a lap of 206.558 mph. Gordon is second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet SS, celebrates capturing the pole position Friday, August 15, 2014 for Sunday`s Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. The was Gordon`s second pole position this season. He set a new track record in the final round of qualifying with a lap of 206.558 mph. Gordon is second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, celebrates with the Coors Light Pole Award after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 15, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, qualifies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 15, 2014 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images)

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